By Glenn Dungan
Sigur called Jude his discovery when visiting a friend in Manhattan. Jude remembered his meal. The starter: Foie gras with apple glaze, topped with sunflower seeds, pistachio, and cracked black pepper. He finished with scallops seared with fennel and shiitake mushrooms, complimented with a sea urchin bisque. Jude did not know who the patron at the table was, but after the meal the owner of the restaurant called him over to meet Sigur, who complimented Jude on his skills.
Sigur told Jude that his skills could be better, and Jude agreed. He learned to be humble in the kitchen. Without even getting up from the table, Sigur offered a position at his restaurant Yggdrasil, located in Reykjavik, Iceland. When Jude expressed hesitance, Sigur simply told him that in Nordic cultures Yggdrasil translates to “Tree of Life”.
Sigur Edmunson did not wait for a response before leaving. He told Jude to be at his restaurant the following Monday. As Jude watched him leave, baffled by the logistics of Sigur’s offer, the owner of the restaurant said, “What are you waiting for? Go.”
“But I have a job here.”
“If I know anything about my friend Sigur, it’s that if he sees potential, he goes for it. He has the ambition of a hunter. His offer to you already signifies that you are too qualified for this restaurant. Get out of here.”
“But this is a Michelin star restaurant!”
“Exactly. Now go, because you’re fired.”
Jude bought a ticket to Reykjavik, along with a private room in a hostel, that night.
He did not sleep much the previous night before his first shift at Yggdrasil. Perhaps it was the six-hour jetlag that was still catching up to him, or the reality that he had abandoned his life as a promising chef in Michelin New York City restaurants to come to Reykjavik for reasons that his Queens born family never quite understood. Perhaps, Jude was simply nervous to train under the famous master chef, Sigur Edmunson. He realized, as he stepped onto the cobblestoned paths and smelled the rich history of the city, that this was probably the case.
Yggdrasil was more gorgeous than the open plains of the country in which is resides. Large, industrial windows skirted the front and separated the patio space from the interior. The door was made of Icelandic birch, which was impressive because according to a statistic Jude read on the plane, trees take up less than three percent of the entire country’s landmass. A hand carved tree painted in gold was emblazoned on the door, cut vertically so it split open upon entry.
Jude found Sigur in his chef’s uniform, much different than the button up and tie that he had seen him wearing in Manhattan not one week prior. Sigur smiled and shook his hand. His skin was strong, and Jude could feel the scars of years of culinary arts etched like cartography on his palm and fingers. When not flushed with wine and a full stomach, Sigur looked hardened from stone and the frosted weather of Iceland. He looked like an old Viking, complete with wisping blond hair that was almost white.
Sigur reached into his pocket and pulled out one thousand krona. He handed it to Jude. He said, “I’ve got something to show you. If you want to work here and learn from me, you’ve got to understand that Yggdrasil does not use conventional ingredients. If it bothers you, or if I think it bothers you, then you take that Krona and leave tonight. I will call my friend Gunther for your job back.”
Jude nodded and pocketed the krona. He followed Sigur through the maze of the open kitchen, into the prep kitchen, and pass the dish pit. They went into the basement, which was surprisingly just as immaculate, and passed the inventory of liquor, extra plates, and aprons. At the end was another door, where a heavy thumping that sounded of heart beats pounded almost rhythmically on the other side. It sounded as if someone was tendering a steak, or battering a fresh tuna, which was common in the culinary field. Sigur reminded Jude of the krona in his pocket and opened the door, releasing high pitch screams through the opening. The screams sounded of torture and made the back of Jude’s hair stand upon his neck. The pounding vibrated his bones.
The room was of industrial tables, silver and shining underneath clinical looking bulbs which hung from the ceiling. Jude stepped into a thin layer of blood upon the tiled floor, which rain in little rivers to the drain in the middle of the room. Upon the table was the biggest fish he had seen, four feet in length, scaled in effervescent green and blue. A tenderizing mallet was being applied with a mason’s precision on its flailing scales. It was then, as the screams continued, that Jude realized this was no fish that made these horrible sounds of torment; it was that of a woman, and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, her eyes as blue as the ocean now fading with pummeling, her soft skin now splotched with the color of undercooked steak, scarlet hair now in tatters on the floor, soft pink lips bloodied and twisted into anguish.
Before Jude was no fish, nor was it a woman. It was a mermaid.
Two prep chefs held the mermaid down as another wailed on its throat, neck, breasts, and ribs. The creature’s eyes rattled in its sockets and in one final blow to its brow it submitted to death in sudden silence. Beyond them was typical prep kitchen activities; chefs cutting cabbage en masse, pasta boiling to be portioned out. The tails of several mermaids stacked on top of one another on a table across the room, where several chefs reorganized the stack to add the newly deceased mermaid to the bunch after separating its torso from its waist with a bone saw. They took the torso of the mermaid, its tongue lolling and eyes wide and blank, and tossed it into a large trash bin lined with black bags.
Sigur said, “What do you think, Jude?”
“I think that when they die, they look an awful lot like fish.”
“Exactly. Mermaid meat is a delicacy. It is very expensive. We usually sell mermaid meat for upwards of four thousand a dish, depending on the market.”
“I didn’t know mermaids were real.”
Sigur studied Jude’s face and Jude knew that this was a man who could see people for who they fundamentally are. Finally he said, “It’s all real.”
“How are we serving her?”
“It. We are serving it with a thyme and maple chardonnay reduction, a side of Brussel sprouts with capers and camembert shavings, and polenta with black garlic and white truffle.”
Jude smiled. He said, “Brilliant.”
“Alright then,” Sigur said. He asked for the krona back and returned to the kitchen.
Jude watched the door close behind him, and even though he had many questions, he knew that they could wait. He belonged in the Yggdrasil, and because Sigur believed this, he himself believed it.
After four weeks of intense training as apprentice to the famous Sigur Edmunson, Jude realized that with genius comes a certain level of insanity. He also knew that Sigur was as hardened as the chilled air flowing like streams in the Reykjavik streets and had seen his wrath in the kitchen during rushes. It was simple things, really, that awoke Sigur’s ire: too much vinegar in the dressing, not enough chives sprinkled atop the rose blossom shaped scrambled eggs to match his seemingly insatiable perfectionism. Jude was not intimidated by Sigur, he was enthralled. He could feel his brain working when his thick brows wiggle during the creation of a new dish, the subtle nods of appreciation when his dishes were plated with as much presentation to rival the Harpa opera house. This man lived for food, and Jude was very happy to be studying under a man as absorbed into the craft as he. Sigur Edmunson was the most prolific artist that Jude had ever, or would ever, meet.
After the initial shock value of the fact that mermaids were not only being harvested but used as effectively as they were, Jude found his temperament on the issue dissipate faster than he had anticipated. Having only gone in the butcher’s room a second time to confirm that his eyes were not deceiving him, Jude had become desensitized to their horrible screams rattling in the basement and their battered, fleshy torsos tossed unceremoniously into a waste bucket. They were no more than fresh caught fish, and on some weeks, mermaids were more plentiful. They were captured by Sigur’s every morning off the coast of the Blacksand Beach with methods unknown. Sigur let slip one evening after a long and successful Saturday night and a celebratory glass or two of wine that mermaids are attracted to a special scent. He would not reveal the scent, even after his cold exterior softened with the blush of drunkenness. He did, however, suggest that it was the same that attracted the sirens of old to ships of men miles across the ocean, like blood to a shark.
He also discovered that a lot of the butchers in the basement will often hum as they batter the mermaids, or whisper poetry to themselves. When he asked why, one of the prep chefs said that beautiful sounds and words muffle the constant snap of breaking joints and bones.
Jude wondered when Sigur’s fascination of these mythical creatures mutated into serving them. He had never seen anyone stare and refer to creatures so elegant and magnificent with such detached pragmatism. Overtime, Jude learned that everyone at the restaurant was desensitized to the mythical nature of their ingredients, but he supposed that it was because the concept of magic was so interwoven in Icelandic history that they were easier to accept the existence of mermaids.
As the winter started to repress and give way to crisper, gentler air, the menu experienced that awkward transitional phase of trying to follow the seasons. Jude was now four months in and had rented a studio in downtown Reykjavik, Miðbær. He was starting to make good drinking buddies at the restaurant, who still poked fun at him for being a “burger eating American” but waned when Jude illuminated the Icelander’s own love of beer and hotdogs. One day, Jude suggested a gumbo using the mermaid meat with a bone broth base, and Sigur thought this was such a clever idea that he gave Jude the rest of the day off to work on the recipe. This caused further butchering of the mermaids in the basement, and the tiles were bathed with such blood that it looked as if toddlers had tried to paint the walls by tossing buckets over their heads. The gumbo consisted of puffins (who were a culturally valued animal in Iceland, but the culinary practice in Yggdrasil has transcended norms in pursuit of art), whale meat, and mermaid. It turns out that mermaid bones make terrible broth, and the product was horrendous. Sigur understood the value of experimentation and instead used whale bones for the base and introduced a new ingredient that he received from a direct supplier in Cyprus, Greece and another somewhere in the forests of Scandinavia.
“Centaur,” Sigur said, “slow cooked with pink peppercorns and mustard seed. I was saving it the fall menu, but you’re welcome to use some for tonight’s dish. Centaur meat is a bit gamey. Consider your applications.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You’re doing terrific, Jude. The Yggdrasil is very fortunate to have you here. I am very fortunate to have you here.”
As Jude stared over the front of the house, watching the pleased expression of the guests who tried his gumbo travel from curiosity to bliss, he thought that his move to Reykjavik was a good one. With Sigur as his mentor, he had no choice but to become the best.
Outside the window the Northern Lights wiggled their green and amorphous tendrils across the sky, casting wiggling lights onto the tables and well-dressed patrons. When he first moved to Iceland, Jude was disappointed that the Aurora Borealis was a shade of lime jello. He learned that humans do not have the eye capacity to view it with such gorgeous colors that he had seen on television and in movies. He wondered if mermaids or centaurs possessed the eyes for magic and dismissed these thoughts as fast as they came. Some birds and insects see in ultraviolet. Dogs cannot comprehend color.
Summer came, and the ice in Iceland melted into crystalline rivers and revealed verdant, mossy moors and plateaus. The patio opened and Sigur hired additional staff to onset the influx of business that comes with the tourists every season. In recent decades, Iceland has become a popular destination for young travelers looking to find themselves, but Yggdrasil does not concern itself with the young, adventurous ilk. The quality of its culinary was too high, and instead the tourism that Yggdrasil capitalizes on during the summer is those of rich corporate executives on holiday, clientele rich enough to fly on a private jet across the world for an evening to spend over one hundred grand on a dinner and then fly back to work on Monday.
Sigur came in one evening holding a metal box. Bandages wrapped around his hands pressed against splotches of blood and pus. He was sweating from his brows, as if he had just spent the evening in the kitchen. He held the box gingerly and stepped into the prep kitchen. The pastry chef gave him a glass of water and rag to wipe his forehead. A crowd gathered around their master chef, curious more of Sigur’s weakened expression than the contents of what he was holding. Jude had never seen Sigur so winded before.
He downed the water and massaged his temples. He said, “I’ve been waiting for this ingredient. Jude, will you get the fire extinguisher and keep it aimed at me?”
Jude retrieved the extinguisher. He stood by Sigur’s side.
“Do you have matches?”
Jude handed him matches.
“Now stand back, all of you.”
Sigur opened the box and all four sides dropped down, revealing the cube to be more of a trap like a carrot underneath a box to catch rabbits. The box was full of straw. The strands rustled and a sharp chirping noise emanated from the pile.
“A nest,” someone said, “for a bird.”
“Not just a bird,” Sigur said, reclaiming his breath, “a phoenix.”
The crowd leaned in just as its tiny, scarlet head peaked from the straw. Some of the servers gushed in its innocent cuteness and Sigur shot them a hardened look which straightened their backs to attention. The bird clicked its beak and rustled its feathers. It cocked its head and stared at Jude with dark, nebulous eyes. It was the most beautiful bird he had ever seen, and Jude knew that his training was effective because his first thought was how can we incorporate this into a dish?
Sigur struck a match and held it in front on his face, the flames threatening to incinerate his thick, blond-white brows. He said, “I’ve had phoenix once, when I was a child. It was not the meat that gave me pleasure—it tastes much like quail or puffin. No, it was the ashes.”
He lowered the match onto the chick, where it raised its head and opened his beak in expectation of food. Sigur kissed the flame onto the bird’s scarlet brow, where it became engulfed in an orb of fire that crackled its bones like popcorn and hissed as it burned the feathers. The chick pipped and squealed in horror as Jude and staff looked on, hardened by Sigur’s own detachment. The bird flailed and flailed its head before crumbling like sand into the blackened mess that was once its nest. The flames died and left a silence in the kitchen.
Sigur took a pinch of the ashes and sprinkled some onto his tongue, where his eyes rolled back and his face relaxed. A bead of sweat fell down his cheek, but Jude was not sure if this was actually tears. It was the first time that Jude had seen Sigur genuinely enjoy the taste of something, which meant that it was nothing short of magical.
Sigur gestured to the pile of ashes and invited all to try a pinch. The ashes of the phoenix felt almost like soot. It was black and it left a residue on Jude’s fingers. He placed it on his tongue and understood why Sigur had gone through so many ambiguous trials to obtain this cindered bird. The ash landed on Jude’s taste buds with an explosion of spice; at first the taste was akin to a strange and unexpected union of paprika and vanilla, and then it followed to the sides of his mouth and increased in intensity until it burned with the aggression of a habanero. Once the spice regressed and traveled to the back of his throat, the taste lingered and turned into salt before returning to its original warming spice, full loop. Jude felt the ash travel down his longs and into his stomach with the smoky burn of a good whiskey, warming him body from the inside all the way to his fingertips. His eyes stung from the spice, and as Jude wiped away a tear, he found out that he was crying. The ashes of the phoenix was as much an intense orgy of flavors that it was almost like covering himself with the blanket; the taste profile was psychic and becoming and evoked memories of utter bliss that one would find only in the womb.
When Jude looked up, he saw the rest of the crew tearing in euphoria. No one was crying for the dead phoenix. One of the hosts reached into the pile for another taste and Sigur rapped on his knuckles with a spoon. He took half of the ashes and put them in mason jar.
“The ashes are a delicacy,” Sigur explained, “they are very expensive.”
Jude asked, “How many dishes can we serve with this amount? Forty, fifty people?”
Sigur shook his head. He put the remaining ashes back in the iron, padlocked cube. “Infinite. There will be a phoenix back by the morning and we will collect another seven ounces.”
Jude had forgotten the lore of the phoenix. Mythical fire birds that rise triumphantly from their ashes. Immortal. He nodded and said, “Something tells me you already have a dish that uses these ashes, sir.”
Sigur locked the box. He said, “A ribeye with phoenix ash rub and mango chutney served with parmesan garlic fingerling potatoes and lemon broccoli rabe. For dessert, let’s see if we can incorporate the ash into a glace and put it over our Tahitian vanilla ice cream. Sprinkle it with a touch of sea salt—a touch—and slivers of peaches. Maybe a bit of cayenne, but that might clash with the heat of the ashes. Let’s make a dish and see how one of the guests react. Do you all understand?”
The employees of the Yggrasdil bounced a collective nod. The chefs went to preparing the dishes and the front of the house went about setting up the tables.
Sigur personally oversaw the creation of each dish, impervious to any outside influence. He was entranced. Like most things, Sigur’s intuition proved correct and the phoenix themed dishes sold out faster than Sigur could register. Jude overheard the patrons describe the ribeye as addicting, inspiring, and incomprehensible in its performance. He thought it was strange words for people who spent over twelve hundred on a single meal. The entrée and dessert received such acclaim that its praise circulated around the restaurant with as much intensity as a forest fire, and before the night was even half over their supply of phoenix ash had been depleted. The disdain from the patrons unable to receive the dish was bittersweet; their disappointment was a good problem to have.
The following night Sigur gathered around the crew and repeated the show with the phoenix. He placed the box on the stainless-steel industrial tables and revealed a fresh bird, already chirping and blinking absently in the heavy light of the kitchen. It was almost surreal, like a magic trick. Jude knew the regenerative nature of the birds but seeing it in practice was an experience all on its own. Sigur palmed the ashes into a mason jar and repeated the practice; remaining ashes in the fireproof box, locked from above, and stored in the cupboard to give the bird time to revive. The rest of the kitchen did their best to prepare for the rush of their high-profile patrons and after the night was over, Jude was asked to open a bottle of whisky to celebrate the end of a long shift.
Jude enjoyed his apprenticeship underneath the famed Sigur Edmunson. Even after half a year, the chef showed no signs of waning genius and was unforgiving in his critique. He played no favorites and apologized to no one. Jude was learning so much more here at the Yggdrasil that he had almost forgot what it was like living in New York, working at places where he felt he had plateaued. The very existence of mythical creatures such as the mermaids, centaurs, and the ever-popular phoenix ash were secondary to him. He had never seen a giraffe before, but that does not mean they do not exist.
The phoenix ash was a hit throughout the summer, its only fault was that the phoenix could not regenerate fast enough to create an additional number of dishes. Anything incorporated with the ashes brought a certain euphoria for the taste buds, one that was not quite addictive but filled their soul with a longing that one never knew they had. The shifts at the Yggdrasil were like clockwork. The crew gets in, watches as Sigur grants the newly revived phoenix with the industrial lights, and sets it aflame, its shrieks of pain and horror no longer shocking for the crew. The sound of its torture was more akin to the dishwasher running, or the oven declaring it has been preheated; sounds of a restaurant in full motion. Some of the servers would actually skip this ritual to get a head start on perfecting the look of their tables. Ashes collected, box closed, workers go home with thousands in their pockets on a Monday night. The mermaid and the centaur meat were still available but had adopted a perception of being the second option.
It was in Autumn when Jude came in early to do inventory. He found the words MUD MEN BUTCHER in scarlet ink written across the Yggdrasil’s oaken doors. Trails of red dripped from its carved branches.
“Mud men,” Sigur said, spooking Jude. He was sitting on a bench in the patio, hunched over, looking like a rock. He shook his head, stroked his beard. “We need to get this cleaned off. Wait here, Jude.”
He went into the restaurant and came out with a bucket of water and two sponges. Jude went to the door and began scrubbing alongside him. The brisk Icelandic air bit his soap covered hand as he raised it above his head.
“Who could have done this?” Jude asked, “I didn’t think we had any real competition.”
“The mermaids,” Sigur answered, “that’s what they call our people.”
Jude paused. It was the first time Sigur hinted to the ingredients as a “people”. It held as much computation as referring to pigs living in a democracy. He had spent so much time with their prepped tails that he had forgotten the initial shock of seeing the mermaids battered to death and separated by their torso in the prep kitchen, sometimes not entirely dead. When dealing with their tuna-like meat it was almost impossible to picture a full breasted woman attached. Now knowing that Jude’s species were callously referred to as “mud men” signified that mermaids not only have enough intelligence to communicate in English but are advanced enough to devise racial slurs that honestly made Jude a bit offended. Who knew those twisted and bloodied lips underneath crooked and snapped noses could form words other than a magnetic siren song from lore?
“What does this mean for us? Should we stop serving mermaids?”
Sigur re-soaped his sponge. “No. We have been serving mermaids for over twenty years. The Yggdrasil is built on mermaid meat. We will not let them slander us.”
Jude suddenly became very cautious. Using words such as “us” and “them” only realized that an entire race of sentient beings hated Jude and his people. It frightened him, but he refused to let his resolve dwindle in Sigur’s company. The Yggdrasil was a foundation of Icelandic cuisine, internationally recognized. There was no way that a collective of mermaids could muster a might at powerful as this restaurant. Sigur sensed this in his protégé, because when Jude turned to him, he put his hand on his shoulder with as much deftness as a baseball mitt.
“This happens every once in a while,” he said, his cold eyes staring in Jude’s, “But they are product. Much like the centaurs, much like our phoenix.”
He went inside, and Jude knew Sigur well enough to know that this was the end of the conversation.
Weeks went by and the restaurant continued to boom. One night in the middle of a rush, Jude, now promoted to sous chef (much to the chagrin of the chefs that worked under Sigur and had been at the Yggdrasil longer), was interrupted from calling orders and orchestrating the back of the house. One of the waitresses tapped him on the shoulder. She balanced a cleaned plate of what once was mermaid steak in one hand and gestured to the windows with the other. Her eyes were in shock, and the blue in her irises were faded. It was not the look of a busy worker; the girl had an issue beyond the mental chaos of a restaurant during rush hour.
“Cecile,” Jude asked, “I can’t go outside now.”
“They are asking for you.”
“They?” Jude sighed, “I don’t have time for this. Get Sigur.”
Cecile shook her head. She pointed to the dark abyss outside of the restaurant, where the floor to ceiling windows were crusted on the perimeter from frost. The black bay looked like ichor and underneath the kaleidoscopic aura of the Harpa Opera House and the dancing green of the Northern Lights, the outside of the restaurant looked otherworldly and frightening. The warmth of the kitchen felt more like a blanket to Jude, and suddenly in his forced comfort he understood. He put down his rag and pen and made sure the kitchen was alright with their orders. He wiped sweat from his brow and headed out of the restaurant.
The mermaid’s heads poked up like the shell of a turtle skimming the cusp of a lake. Fiery scarlet strands and hair the color of the sun rose up from the black water of the bay to the bridge of their nose, almost so it seemed that the mermaids were stalking prey. If Jude did not know any better, he would have assumed that it was just a group of seemingly beautiful and bold women going for a swim in the frozen waters of Iceland. But he knew better. He knew the girth of their tails that waded to keep aloft in the water, the thick meat that could be tenderized to make the most delicate of fish steaks. The rhythm of moving water pierced the stillness of the Icelandic sky.
Sigur stood on the basalt in his chef scrubs. He gave Jude a sideways glance when they met at the shore. In typical Sigur fashion, his face was hardened and calloused. He showed no emotion, and when he stood to attention, he gave the impression of an immovable wall.
One of the mermaids spoke from underneath the water. It sounded like wind chimes, trumpets, a running brook, wind on an open plateau. It was the most beautiful sound Jude had ever heard, and it sent shivers down his spine. A lump formed in his throat faster than he could recognize it, and he eyes began to sting with the advent of tears. It was a visceral reaction, a certain control of his body that he knew was not his own. Sigur warned him of this once. Even when the fish are not trying for the Siren Song, every time they open their gills it comes out, just a bit.
“You have received our warning,” one of them said. Jude was unsure which one. “Yet you continue to capture our sisters and consume us.”
Sigur said, “I’ve been doing this for decades, and now you choose to meet me like this? On a Saturday night, when I am making my bread?”
“Your savagery must stop, Butcher. We have heard your horrors befallen the Centaurs in the forests of Scandinavia. We have heard of your ripping the chicks of phoenixes from the United States. Our children know your name. You have become the monster that keeps them awake at night.”
Sigur remained stalwart, “This is a place of business. Do you not harass and defile restaurants that sell lamb, or those that sell cow?”
“It is not the same,” she said.
“It is not the duty of humans to act their part in the food chain?”
Their eyes went wide. The water stirred. The blonde one looked at Jude and he felt his knees buckle. She said, “And what of this young one? Tell me, young one, what would you do if we ate your children?”
Jude stammered, “I don’t have children.”
The blonde mermaid took a breath. When she spoke, her voice cracked. “And soon, neither will we.”
The mermaid with scarlet hair turned her attention back to Sigur. “You’ve got a decision to make, Butcher. You end your actions, or your life. Make this decision for yourself so we do not have to.”
The mermaids drew their heads back into the water, diving with grace and poise. Their fish tails peaked out of the black lake, like a whale breaching and submerging, signifying their descent. The scales were opalescent underneath the green aura of the Northern Lights and the dancing colors of the Harpa. A deft silence occupied by a gust of chilled wind. Sigur looked to Jude and Jude looked back.
“What are we going to do?” Jude asked.
“Get back to work. The restaurant needs us.”
He shambled back, his spine upright, his posture unmoved. Jude looked for any change in his personality that would be affected by the mermaid’s threats. He remained as stalwart as ever, like the roots of a resilient tree ignoring the heavy winds of a storm.
Their shoes crunched underneath the black rocks as they made their way from the docks to the back deck of the restaurant, closed today due to the sudden drop of weather. They walked past stacked chairs and cardboard boxes needing to be thrown out. The patrons of Yggdrasil ate and were merry, their bellies full of wine and delicacies. The restaurant looked particularly warm form the outside. Flames from the fireplaces licked upwards and the servers moved with such grace they looked like ballerinas. Jude was about to reach for the door when Sigur stopped. Suddenly he looked very old.
“It’s not about the food chain,” Sigur said. He gestured to the restaurant, “although if one wanted to be poetic it could be. But it’s not. It’s about art. The art of cooking.”
“But they can think, sir. They speak English.”
“So do parrots,” Sigur said.
“But parrots can only mimic English. These mermaid’s-”
Sigur opened the door. The sounds of a busy restaurant flooded in. The clanking of cutlery and plates, the shouting of orders from the kitchen, the hustled communication of the servers as they nestled between the dichotomy of worlds between back and front of the house.
“Does it matter?” Sigur said.
Jude returned his gaze to the lake. The mermaid’s eyes swam into the back of his consciousness before wading up to the forefront of his mind. It was as if they were still out there, watching him, waiting for his move. Although he could not place it, Jude knew he had been strung into something larger than himself, and that falling asleep with a belly full of Icelandic vodka would not stop their beautiful, haunting eyes in the morning.
“No,” Jude said, entering the black rectangle of the hallway because the light had gone out and there was no need to fix it during summer. “No, I guess not.”
Jude was settling into his life outside of the Yggdrasil. He had found a favorite bar of his, his favorite coffeeshop. He was beginning to know the residents of Reykjavik and they were beginning to know him. The air was cleaner here, much crisper and fresher than the exhaust of New York City. He still was not as used to the quiet, nor the lapping of waves against the basalt, nor the smell of that freshly baked Rugbrauo occupying tiny pockets near the Blue Lagoon.
One night, he had gotten drunk with a couple of the coworkers at a pub somewhere on Laugavegur street and had ended the night speaking to a beautiful woman who he had been catching eyes with all night. Her hair was a natural platinum blonde, and her eyes were as sharp and blue as ice caps. Dimples marked the corners of every flirtatious smile. Leaning on one another outside the pub, the woman leaned in for a kiss and without thinking Jude turned away.
“What’s wrong, she asked?”
“Nothing,” Jude said.
They tried again and succeeded, but it was neither a passionate kiss nor a drunken one. It felt like nothing more than a handshake. The woman leaned back, struck, wavering. They stood in a fusion of vodka from their breaths. When Jude looked back into her eyes, he saw the lake outside the Yggdrasil again, and felt the chill air come through his nostrils and out his mouth. The cusp of water ebbing at the bridges of their Mermaid noses as they watched half submerged under the ephemeral green of the Aurora Borealis.
Jude blinked, and he was outside of the restaurant. It was three in the morning and the cusp of sunlight, forever waiting at the horizon due the curvature of the Earth, watched him in his drunken haze. He could still smell the scent of the woman at the bar and was sure that his awkward getaway would be felt in the morning, much like the pain of wounds set in when the adrenaline runs dry after a fight. He found himself sitting on the docks surrounded by the icy lake and the basalt rocks. He was not sure if he would ever look at fish or women the same way again.
Jude came into work the next day to do inventory. Working his way up from the dry storage to the freezers, he found himself at the end of his two-hour gauntlet of numbers and checking the ounces of sauces in the basement. The heavy pounding of the butcher’s room preceded Jude’s eardrums even before he stepped down the musty stairs. It was rhythmic, almost like they were tenderizing a steak. He found his breathing getting heavy as he approached the door, and flashes of those battered faces with their lolling tongues swam to the forefront of his memory. The heavy thumping of the mallets on their skulls, bloodying their hair, each strike on their temple edging them closer from fear and pain to that sudden, lifeless death. That was when they became fish, for in death, as the butchers begin the next phase of sawing their tails from their torsos, their faces look a lot like caught trout.
He opened the door and the thumping rattled his bones. The butchers, so sensitive to the sounds of breaking bones and screaming women, were whispering poetry to themselves. There were five stations in the room, each with four butchers reciting poetry under their breath. It required three men to hold their flailing bodies down, and another to beat them to death. Shrieks of horror from the little islands of steel accompanied the flailing of their tails. One by one, the mermaids would submit to the final blow and fall limp on the table, where the butchers would move to the next step of removing the tail from their bare breasted torso and tossing it into a black lined garbage pale in the corner. The butchers moved like machines. They moved like doctors performing amputations.
Jude stepped over a river of gore along the tiles and ignored the smell of blood and fish which thickened the room with an odorous miasma. He walked to the stack of tails bundled with twine to prevent them from falling. The scales were opalescent and glittering, and the fins were so thin that Jude was able to see his hand through the red and green film. Evidence of spinal cords stuck out like the ends of frayed knots. He counted the tails and then asked one of the butchers where the rest of the inventory was kept. The man pointed with a blood-stained hand to the freezer.
“Usually Sigur does the inventory,” he said.
“I’m doing it today,” Jude answered.
He stepped over another pool of blood and ignored the screams of protest as the final mermaid attempted to claw her way out of her restraints before succumbing to a deft and final thump of the mallet.
The walk in looked like any other in a restaurant. Blocky, metal exterior, typical grade. Inside there were four mermaids huddled together, their arms wrapped around their breasts for warmth, their tails curled up. Patches of frost gathered on their shining tails and at the edges of their lustrous hair. Blue lips exhumed clouds of air. They did not even react to Jude as he entered. They simply shot him a glance and looked away, defeated. In the opening of the door shrieks of another mermaid swept in and the mermaids started to whimper. Jude closed the door and muted the battering of their sisters. He was not sure if he was saving them from the torment or himself. He steadied himself and counted the pounds of pork chops, centaur meet, and lobster tails. He ignored their wavering breathing and they ignored him, although this mutual dynamic was particularly loud because it deafened the horrors beyond the freezer. He made his way about the room, stepping over boxes and tallying on his clipboard. The undying presence of the captured mermaids was thick and cold. Several times he had gotten his counts wrong. He tried to reason with himself that the mermaids knew they were going to die, and that he himself was not slaughtering them. It did not assuage the awkward guilt that gnawed at him as he did his inventory above, around, and including their clustered together bodies. Finally, Jude went to the door and cut through the whimpers of the freezing mermaids, he looked over his shoulder and they kept their gaze to the walls, to their huddled arms. Their tails wiggled as they adjusted positions, shedding crystals of frost like dandruff. Jude put down “four” in his counts.
The following weeks Jude felt hollow. He would stay up late and wake up late, leaving only to go to work, which he had slowly begun to dread. His resistance to cook at the Yggdrasil crept up on him, like a growing shadow underneath a rising sun. Perhaps these gnawing feelings of what would turn into disgust disguised as apathy sourced from the anxiety that he had uprooted his life as a successful chef in a Michelin New York City restaurant for Sigur. He had abandoned his old life as fast as he acquired this new one. This unnamable infraction upon his psyche affected his work and invaded his dreams. He was not orchestrating the kitchen with as much proficiency as he had. Weekend rushes caused him as much stress as if he were new to the craft. He passed an opportunity to create a new phoenix ash dish to a colleague who was more than happy for the chance to impress Sigur, as Jude illustrated five months prior.
Jude had most difficulty serving the mermaid inspired dishes. The weather was in transition from fall to winter, and the air was blistering in the morning and at night, when the sun hibernated and illuminated the sky for just four hours a day. They were serving blackened mermaid steaks with tomato remoulade, a side of swiss char tossed with olive oil, black pepper, and pine nuts, and diced butternut squash with rosemary and garlic. Sigur’s architectural genius of this dish would normally have impressed Jude, but now he was relieved when people ordered the dish vegetarian. Whenever he would put together the dish, he would recall their eyes just floating above the cusp of the water. With the chilled lake at the bridges of their nose, they asked what he would do if they ate his children, and stupidly Jude answered that he had none. The image of the mermaids in the freezer, where no doubt a new group was waiting for their death by bludgeoning in the basement, haunted his dreams and pushed him into near vegetarianism. Whenever he would see one of the guests who had paid seven hundred dollars for the dish spear the tail with a fork, Jude would hear screams of their anguish and the forceful snapping of their bones as the mallets hit their beautiful cheeks, temples, brows…and the whispers that carry throughout, little mantras of Goethe, Whitman, Eliot…because poetry is easier to hear than the snapping of bones, easier to ignore than the slaughterhouse beneath their feet. The walls of the restaurant began to close around him.
He waited for the dinner rush to subside before switching the orchestration to the line cooks. It was difficult for him to keep serving as the claustrophobia gripped him. Under the excuse that he needed air, he stepped outside where his footsteps hit the deftness of their wooded patio to the crunch of the basalt rocks. Spheres in the black ichor bobbed in the distance. He knew what it was. The mermaids were watching him from beyond, protected by the geological miracle of the Northern Lights, gazing upon Jude for weeks as he slowly lost his ability to eat, to sleep, to fuck, to cook. He took off his chef coat and tossed it on the rocks where it lay like a dead animal, the frigid air intercepting him as if he were tackled. Yet, the freedom from its weight forced the cold into submission. His face flushed; the sting of tears started blossomed in the corner of his eyes.
“I’m sorry!” Jude yelled.
The mermaids bobbed in the water. They dipped down in unison and appeared faster than Jude could register. They floated before him, just off the shore. It was the same distance as before. Their eyes peaked from the curtain of the lake; beautiful crystals adorned with hair the color of the sun, of the night sky, of the kiss of fire.
Jude fell to his bottom. The rocks poked his behind, but he did not care. He sat almost like a shamed infant and felt just the same. He picked up his chef jacket and tossed it farther away, put his head in his hands. He looked up from his knees and breathed in the cold tickle of Icelandic air.
When the mermaid spoke, the sound was not from the water. It was from the sky itself, bathed in green aura, coming from the space in between the shore, the holes of each rock once carved by lava now flowing with a river of words. A cosmic echo reverberating into his psyche. It was a variation of the Siren’s Song, and Jude knew it.
“How many of us do you have? How many of our sisters are alive in this butchery of yours?”
Jude stammered. “Three, four? Last week it was four, but they are gone now. I’m sorry.”
The mermaids stirred. They looked at one another, whispering. Jude heard them.
“Fire and blood.”
“Fire and blood.”
“Fire. And. Blood.”
They returned their attention to Jude, who now had tears streaming down his face. His chest thumped with each silent sob, like a rough hiccup. The salt in his tears prevented freezing, and they traced down his bearded cheeks like icy rivers.
One of them said, “On the morrow this place will burn. See to it that you are not here.”
“Please,” Jude said, “please do it when the restaurant it closed. The workers here are innocent.”
“None of you are,” she said, “but you have redeemed yourself. You humans are savage creatures, and your butcher does no favors for your kind. We have a kingdom, you know. As do the giants, the centaurs, the elves, the treants. We may bicker, but we do not fight amongst ourselves. There is a reason why your kind has never been allowed in the Great Council.”
Jude leaned in. He knew Centaurs and phoenixes existed, but Sigur had never told him of elves, giants, and treants. He suddenly felt more shame than he had, another blanket which warmed him from the frost laden air. Between him, a sobbing schmuck, and Sigur, The Butcher, these mermaids did not have a good representation for humankind. Then Jude thought of humanity’s past wars, bombings, conquests. He felt the shame of a millennia of human evolution and history. He felt it for both him and Sigur, because he knew that his mentor would not.
“Where is the Great Council?” Jude asked even though he knew it was a strange question. He was embarrassed by his own stupidity, like asking for directions to a party that he was not even invited to. Yet with this sudden knowledge of a world beyond his own, farther than the reach of Humankind’s perception, he was starved for more knowledge.
“Your kind will never know,” she said, “but it is at the root of the Tree of Life, where we meet in its wooded trunk. It is dying, because you humans are feeding the planet with oil and plastic.”
Jude looked away.
“But it will remain resilient, as it always has. It has existed before you and will after you. You humans have a name for it, our Tree of Life. Do you want to know what it is called?”
Jude looked back the restaurant, with its warm interior and white clothed tables. He returned his gaze back to the mermaids. “Yggdrasil,” he said.
“What do you call it?”
The word was foreign to him, full of strange consonants and sounds that Jude could not even attempt to replicate with his own tongue. It was arcane, a word that he knew he would never hear again. It was one that he could barely comprehend the first time. The mermaids watched him struggle and finally sink into the rocks, aware of his own unimportance, embarrassed of his silence during the butchery of the mermaids.
“On the morrow,” one of them said, “right before sunrise.”
Jude looked up from his knees. He nodded. The scalps of the mermaids dipped into the black water with great opalescent fins following immediately after, slapping the lake with a splash that echoed in the emptiness of the air. Jude wiped his tears and looked at the chef’s coat, all ivory atop the shore of black rocks. He picked it up, felt its weight, and tossed it into the waters before heading back into the restaurant and telling the head waiter that he was going home.
Jude did not sleep that night. He attempted to get drunk at the pub but found his biology unable to submit to the numbing of alcohol. The burning slither of whiskey down his throat failed to warm him from the frosted temperatures outside, nor did it quell the pounding of his heart in his chest. He paid his tab, kept his head down, afraid of eye contact. The last time he had gazed into someone’s eyes he had failed miserably, impotently. The time before that he had half a mind to drown himself. The mermaids did not ask him to, but the call of their voice put him in a position that if they wanted, he would. He shuddered with the mysterious feeling of a real Siren’s Song, put on full blast, raping his psyche. He feared that their meeting this evening could have ended with him walking into the black waters, freezing his testicles off while they consume him alive.
Jude shuddered again, embarrassed with himself that he would even think such thoughts when he had seen their anguish, their disappointment at the savagery of his species, of the brutality that forbade them from being something greater. Jude wanted to see the great hall within Yggdrasil, the real one. He wanted to see something beautiful even though he himself was not.
Jude found himself staring at his front door. It was four hours now until sunrise, and he knew that the mermaids would keep their promise. He tried to sleep but gave up almost as fast as his head, hit the pillow. He brushed his teeth, washed his face. He started to pack, haphazardly throwing his clothes—most of which were white and covered with some resistant fleck of resin, sauce, or spice—into his suitcase. It was a funny thing, Jude thought. He had almost forgotten his suitcase existed, for it had turned into nothing more than hidden furniture in his closet. Suddenly his time in Iceland felt like awakening from a fever dream, or perhaps entering one. He was not sure. All he was certain of was that mermaids exist, and they will keep their promise. He was grateful that they would not do it when the staff was working and was happy to keep his promise of the knowledge that there were no mermaids currently held in their icy prisons. Currently. Jude paused, thinking of how every morning there seemed to be new mermaids in the fridge. This meant that Sigur might be there now, hefting their unconscious bodies over his shoulder and slamming them in the corner like limp cattle. Jude collected himself, rechecked his belongings, and hurried out of the door.
It was two hours before sunrise, and Jude was out of breath as he reached the Yggdrasil. He unlocked the door and made his way down the stairs, holding onto the wobbly banister and descending two at a time. He made his way to the butchery, where the tiles were permanently tinted red, resistant to the nightly power washing. The room looked mechanical, like a factory, or an operating room. The metal tables, void of the bones, gore, and battered flesh, reflected the industrial lamps above. The butcher’s tools; mallet, tenderizer, cleaver, bone saw, positioned at the right side of each station, ready to be picked up for use in a couple hours.
The freezer door was open. Jude became flushed both with relief that he had caught them in time and fear that he would have to do something about it. Sigur came out of the walk-in, rubbing his hands on his pants, glittering flecks of tail and fin smearing on his denim.
“Jude?” Sigur said. He took up the entire door. “What are you doing here this early?”
Jude swallowed the lump in his throat. “We need to get out of here.”
Sigur almost growled. “We have to prepare for brunch. It’s Sunday.”
Jude steadied himself on one of the butcher’s tables. He gathered the saliva in his mouth, afraid that his words will fail him. “The mermaids are going to burn this place at sunrise.”
“The fish, you mean,” Sigur said, “let them try.”
He began to walk away into the back and up the steps to the outside, where he kept his boat. Jude followed after him, but not before glancing in the freezer. There were already four mermaids tangled in one another, unconscious, their eyes fluttering. Usually the stock is two to three, but on weekends, especially Sundays, they had more to accommodate the orders. Fucking Sunday brunch. Jude trailed after him, and Sigur paid him no mind. It was like telling an ocean liner to stop by voice alone. He watched Sigur reach into the bed of the boat and with a heavy grimace pull another mermaid up and over his shoulder, where he sauntered over the basalt and down the steps, all while Jude attempted to catch his attention. The strength of his mentor was impressive, and any of those whispers among the staff that questioned Sigur’s previous life as a seafarer (almost Viking-like) was quelled right there and then.
“Sir,” Jude said, “We’ve got to stop. Call the staff. Tell them they need to find new jobs.”
“Leave me Jude. Come back in a couple hours.”
Sigur huffed and dropped another mermaid on her shoulder, where she rolled off the freezing flesh of her sisters and tumbled to the icy floor, breasts exposed. Her shoulder would be in tremendous pain when she woke up. Sigur went to get the final mermaid. Jude stepped in front of the freezer, and suddenly his six-foot frame felt dwarfed by his mentor’s stalwart size. Sigur’s hardened gaze, the gaze of hunter, an artist, a dominator, fell upon Jude with such deftness that he only felt when others were getting fired or close to it. It was a look of ire that Jude was always relieved to avoid.
“Sir,” Jude said, “the mermaids are coming. We need to leave.”
“If you don’t get out of my way, we are going to have problems.”
Jude shook his head. He looked past Sigur and saw the mermaids in captivity. “Only if you give up this fantasy of yours. Their threat is real.”
“Fantasy?” Sigur grumbled. “I am a prodigy. I built this restaurant with my bare hands when you were still shitting yourself in America. This building, and everything it stands for, is art.” He paused, bit his lower lip. The white bristles on his beard bent upwards. “How do you know of this threat?”
“They told me.”
Sigur put a heavy palm on Jude’s shoulder. It felt like the paw of a lion and it surged with a ferocious energy. It was different than when, many months ago, a lifetime ago, that they had washed off the graffiti claiming Sigur and his staff MUDMEN BUTCHERS, when Sigur spoke to him with a fatherly reassurance. Sigur pushed Jude aside as if he were a turnstile, and even though he tried to hold his ground he was unable to resist his mentor’s strength.
“You’re fired,” Sigur said, “go back to the States.”
“If you don’t call off the staff, I will.”
Sigur grit his teeth. “This is my livelihood, Jude. Yggdrasil is my legacy!”
Jude pointed to the mermaids freezing in the corner. The ones from before were starting to stir, flutter their eyes, rub their temples. “It’s their livelihood, too.”
“They are just fish! Do you cry when we eat a leg of lamb? Do you get nightmares from slicing into a steak?”
“Not the same.”
Sigur pushed Jude against one of the butcher tables, hitting him in the hip. “It’s almost sunrise. Get out of the restaurant. I’m disappointed in you. So much potential.”
He was right; wisps of sunrise were creeping in through the cellar door. The mermaids would be on their way, or perhaps they were already here, waiting from the cover of the lake. Jude felt behind him, grazing the cold steel of the table, the pedestal of so much brutality. “I’m disappointed in myself, too. I’m sorry.”
His fingers found their way to the handle of the tenderizing mallet, and in one swing that pulled out his shoulder, Jude slammed the spikes into Sigur’s left temple. Sigur stumbled back, holding his face, his hands sticky with blood. He collected himself and charged at Jude, picking him up and slamming his spine on the table. The mallet fell to the floor. His eyes turned inhuman and flecks of spit and gore pattered on Jude as Sigur’s knuckles crushed his nose, his right cheek bone. In those flashes of brutality Jude saw Sigur’s eyes oscillating between the genius face and the madness lurking within, a brutal creature who uses art and bending of the food chain to sing to whatever god of dominance seething in the depths of his dark mind. Sigur punched Jude again, splitting his brow, the force of his hairy knuckles thumping against the metal table. Swathes of black splashed across his vision. Sigur looked down on Jude from the butchers table.
“Look at you,” he said, clearing his face from the blood that ran down his cheek. “You’re like one of them now, suspended on the table, half conscious. Is this want you wanted? To be a fish?”
Jude looked up to the industrial lamps hanging dangling from the ceiling. They looked like suns. He tried to speak.
“Let them come. You can burn with them.”
Sigur’s jaw dropped and he doubled over, his knees buckling. Screams of anguish erupted into the room, and he fell onto the tiled floor. Jude blinked, wiped a spittle of blood that had fallen from his nose and threatened to drip into his mouth like a leaky faucet. To his right a cascade of opalescent glimmered from the floor next to Sigur’s fallen body. Jude turned and saw a mermaid, the one who had awoken from before, laying on the floor. She held a bloodied bone saw in her hand and propped herself up with the other. They locked eyes, and they were the most beautiful eyes Jude had ever seen. They looked like galaxies. Sigur twitched and held his legs, roaring more in anger than pain. She cut his Achille’s heel with the saw and while that was enough to stop him from murdering Jude, it was not enough blood loss and shock to keep him at bay. He roared, caught eyes with the mermaid, and kicked her in the nose with his unlacerated foot. She doubled back, his strength enough to push her across the tiled floors by a couple feet, where the back of her head hit the legs of one of the tables. Jude rolled off, his stomach hitting the floor, knocking the breath out of him. He found the mallet that he had dropped and crawled to Sigur. He climbed on top of him and slammed him once, twice across the forehead. He raised it again when Sigur’s eyes finally closed, his head rolling to one side.
Jude dropped the mallet and held his chest. He spit some blood on the floor and steadied himself. Sunlight crept through, stretching more from the rectangle of a cellar door. The mermaids will keep their promise, Jude understood that. He wanted them too. He stood up, his shoes scraping along the blood that dripped from Sigur’s split heel and picked up the mermaid who still clutched the bone saw in her unconscious hands. She was heavy, but Jude did his best to be tender with her. Even with a broken nose, she was beautiful. Her red hair fell like drapes and felt like silk on his arm, and her tail glittered underneath the rising sun. He walked to the lake, past Sigur’s boat, and laid her down on the shore, making sure that her head was not in an uncomfortable position among the rocks. He looked at the lake and did not see any heads bobbing in the distance, and he knew that he was running out of time. Jude stood and went into the freezer, picked up each mermaid one by one, and limped his way to the shore, setting the mermaids up next to one another, their flesh touching. Hopefully when they woke, they would not be as frightened because they were together. It was now that the mermaid’s appeared, twenty of them. They watched Jude from the water.
“Please,” Jude said. He gestured to the mermaids on the shore and gave them a hard look to communicate that he had just saved them. “Five minutes. I beg you.”
The mermaid in the front nodded. It was the same from the night prior. There was no way to be sure, but he knew.
Jude went one final time to the freezer to confirm that he had gotten them all and closed the door. Pain was starting to settle in, the strikes of Sigur’s brutality were as thick as the blood that painted his face. His muscles were sore from carrying the unconscious bodies of the mermaids. He stepped over the mallet, the bone saw, and Sigur’s unconscious body. He pulled out his phone and dialed the assistant managers, telling them that the restaurant was closed for sudden renovations, and that he himself was frustrated with Sigur’s lack of communication. It was too much to tell them that the Yggdrasil would soon be set aflame, and quite frankly Jude reasoned that the mystery would be enough to keep their sanity and careers intact. He went into the kitchen and turned on the burners, one by one. He placed his key on a cutting board. He gave a lasting glance to the floor, where the tables were dressed in immaculate ivory linen, where smell of food wafted in and out the doors. Jude gripped steadied himself on the prep kitchen tables and fought nostalgia.
He made his way to the back door, limping, trailing a footprint of Sigur’s blood on the carpet with every step. The mermaids were where he had left them at thirty feet from the shore. This gave him relief, for Jude did not know if he had the strength to run out of a burning building. The sun had level above the clouds now, casting the sky with a delicate white, turning the reflective exterior of the Harpa into fractals of orange and gold across the bay. He was on their time now, and even though their patience came as a gift for his deeds of saving their sisters, he knew that his time was limited. The mermaids stared at him from across the water, their face half buried at the bridge of the nose. The group of them had thinned, and Jude understood that his time was indeed as limited as he feared. Soon, all around him would engulf in flames.
Jude paused. He limped back into the kitchen, past his keys, past the stacks of pots and pans and perfectly sharpened knives that will soon melt into oblivion. He went into the stockroom and swept boxes of flour and spaghetti onto the floor, revealing a faint whisper of a grey, iron box in the back. He cradled the container and went back into the butchery, where Sigur lay motionless at the foot of the table, stained in a combination of his and Jude’s own blood.
“Please, two more minutes, two more minutes,” Jude pleaded.
He put the box on a counter and opened it to a groggy chirp. The phoenix, more scarlet than even the lick of flame, popped its head out of the ashes that made up its nest, blinking at the sudden disturbance. It was just a chick, and even though Jude was certain it would survive the fire, he was positive that it would starve in its metal coffin, or someone as vile as Sigur would find it. The phoenix chick chirped, shook the ashes off from its feathers. A certain heat radiated from the box, like he was having his hand near a stove. He took the box in the crook of his arm and made his way to the cellar door, stopping when he passed an empty mason jar. Jude placed the phoenix on the table, its galactic eyes staring up at him with innocent curiosity, naïve and stupid to the horrors its past lives had been subjected to. Jude shoved some of the ashes in the jar and fastened it tight until his muscles started to hurt. He put the jar in his pocket and limped out of the cellar with the phoenix in his arms, careful not to shake the box too much with his uneven steps. The mermaids were gone. Jude placed the phoenix’s box next to the unconscious mermaids, nestling it in between a tiny pit of rocks so it would remain steady for the chick. Perhaps it might even fall back asleep amidst all the chaos that will surely ensue.
Jude stood up, brushed himself off, and ignored the pain creeping upon his body. He passed Sigur’s boat and gave a fleeting glance to the mermaids and phoenix resting on the shore, their faces so graceful, their tails the color of stars. He looked back at the Yggdrasil and turned away, knowing that he will never get the opportunity to walk this way again, to open those golden carved doors that are shaped to mimic the Tree of Life.
Jude bought his ticket back to New York City later that night. He rested on the chair with an icepack on his forehead and fresh bandages on his body. The word of the fire of the great and famous Yggdrasil restaurant of Reykjavik, Iceland spread as fast as the flames burnt it to the ground. Sigur’s charred remains were easily identified, and it helped that his boat was parked on the shore. When pressed for details, some of the interviewed staff were candid about their suspicions that Sigur’s alcoholism locked away some inner demons and that perhaps they had finally gotten to him.
Jude drank tea with some of the phoenix ashes. It tasted almost like a Hot Toddy. He slept long and good, and the next morning all his wounds were either healed or had been reduced to light bruises. He took the flight back to New York City the next morning, and when he got off the plane and into the once familiar smog and swears that permeate the Big Apple, he took himself out to lunch before heading into the sublet somewhere in the reams of Bushwick.
He ordered a salad and wondered if his life in Iceland was either a dream or a nightmare. He decided it was both and knew that what he knew was true was not always just. They were a part of a bigger world, one beyond the realms and perceptions of humans, and even though Jude admitted that he had learned a lot from the monstrous Sigur Edmunson, he would turn into a vegetarian. Cold turkey.
About Glenn Dungan
Glenn Dungan is based in Brooklyn, NYC. He has an eye for the surreal. When not writing, he can be found drinking black coffee and listening to podcasts about murder.