Prior to his death, my twin began to have terrible dreams. Our mother traveled the nine worlds, extracting a promise from everything to not harm Balder. Because Balder was so well loved, everything agreed. The gods celebrated my twin’s new invulnerability by throwing things at him. Arrows and knives, spears and swords; none touched him. Everyone laughed.
The laughter ended when I threw a branch of mistletoe and it pierced Balder through the heart.
My death soon followed his, and the world descended into Ragnarok. Eventually I was reborn to a new mother and father. We lived in a red beach cottage in San Clemente and adopted my little sisters, Adelaide and Tabitha, just a few days after I turned thirteen.
Some of my favorite memories were our weekend walks to the beach, when my sisters and I went up the trail to the pier. In the summer, they played in the water while I read books under an umbrella in the sand. Sometimes they persuaded me to join them, taking great pleasure in teaming up to splash me. Most times they would demand I buy them crepes and souvenirs. They had a lot of San Clemente souvenirs.
I was well into medical school when I began to regain my old memories. For a long time, they bothered me. I had no desire to be drawn back into my previous life. So I decided that that life was over and chose this current one as my own. Several years passed. Things were, for the most part, well. And then my brothers began to come see me.
I was living in Los Angeles, in the Venice Canals, where I often ran the two-and-a-half miles from my house all the way up to the Santa Monica Pier. The sight of the giant Ferris wheel always felt like an accomplishment. On the way back, I stopped at my favorite place on the boardwalk for coffee and then made my leisurely way home, passing the skate bowls, the street vendors and shops, and Muscle Beach.
So it was an unpleasant surprise to see my first visitor hovering about my door like a lost tourist, unsure whether the house he stood at was mine.
“Hi, Hermod,” I said.
He turned, his eyes widening in surprise. “Hod?”
He clearly had not expected me reborn as a woman. It was jarring to see him in modern dress, but what surprised me was how familiar he appeared. Even though it had been several millennia since I’d last seen him, Hermod still brimmed with his air of purpose.
“How did you recognize me?” he asked.
“I wasn’t born blind,” I reminded him.
Hermod gave me an uncertain smile.
I knew this wasn’t purely a social call and decided it would be better to discuss whatever he had to say inside. Hermod peered about my home with unabashed curiosity, his gaze lingering over the personal photos that lined the walls.
“How did you find me?”
Hermod shrugged. He had his ways. “I have something for you.”
He held out a familiar gold ring.
“Draupnir?” The ring had belonged to our father. Forged by the dwarves Brokk and Eitri, it multiplied itself, creating new rings equal in quality to the original. “How did you come by this?”
“From Balder, when I rode to Hel to plead his release.”
Hermod saw my confusion, and didn’t appear eager to be the one to reveal the unknown news.
“After he died, our father placed the ring on Balder’s pyre,” he explained. “Our mother asked if there was one willing to face Hel, to ask that Balder be returned from death. I went. I was not able to secure his release in the end, but I saw our brother and he gave me back Draupnir for safekeeping.”
“Balder’s death was prophesized to start Ragnarok. That’s why I begged for his release.” His tone was defensive.
I looked up. “A valid reason.”
Hermod wasn’t going to say anything more on the matter. He held out Draupnir.
I stared at it. “What good do gold rings serve me in this world? Give it to someone who appreciates it.”
“The gods are gathering at Idavoll. Draupnir will help guide the way.”
“I have no interest in going to Idavoll. I have my life here.”
“It isn’t only for you,” Hermod snapped. “The new rings, they are for the others.”
“And you expect me to distribute them. Why?”
“This task was assigned to you.” Hermod gave me one of his self-important smiles. “Think of it as, in its own small way, a way to make up for your inadvertent contribution to Ragnarok.”
My gut clenched. I was reminded of why I’d never liked Hermod.
“You were there. You know perfectly well that it was Loki who guided my hand.”
“He paid a heavy price for his crime, I assure you. But intent or no, it was your hand that caused our brother’s death.”
Hermod hadn’t changed one bit. “Get out,” I told him.
As he left, he said, “Thor and Vidar are on their way to see you. You know theirs will be an extended stay.”
“When?” I called after him.
“Soon,” he replied, which wasn’t in the least bit helpful.
The problem was that I didn’t know if they had survived or died during Ragnarok. If they were reborn, I had no way of knowing what form their new bodies would take.
One evening, I came back from my run and walked to the end of the pier to cool down. In the water surfers sat or lay across their boards, waiting for the next wave. Two caught my attention, one dark-haired, one strawberry blonde. I narrowed my eyes. The dark-haired one was the same. The strawberry blonde was reborn but remarkably similar to his previous form. Vidar and Thor. The gods who so loved and excelled at war. When had they learned how to surf?
I didn’t feel like yelling and waving my arms to get their attention, so I sat in the sand to wait. When they finally emerged from the water, their wetsuit-clad figures were impressive against the setting sun. It was Thor who recognized me. Perhaps Hermod had been in touch.
I nodded and stood up.
Thor grinned. His teeth gleamed white. His hair was brilliant gold and red.
“My… sister.” He pulled me into a crushing embrace. Ocean water seeped into my shirt and shorts.
I gently extricated myself. “Hermod told me you were coming.”
I looked over at Vidar, who was silent and unsure how to greet me. “It’s good to see you, brother.” We carefully embraced.
I took Thor and Vidar back to my house. They’d arrived in Venice that morning and, figuring I would be at work, had decided to spend the day learning how to surf.
“This was your very first time?”
“Aye,” Thor smiled. He’d already eaten three apple-and-cheese sandwiches, and waited as I put together a fourth.
“I was watching you two. You’re awfully good. Hermod told me about the rings. I have yours ready for you to take.”
“That’s not the only reason we came,” Thor said.
“We wanted to see you and enjoy your company. It has been several millennia.”
I looked at Vidar, who didn’t contradict him. His plate was empty, so I passed him a new sandwich as well.
“I’m not often home. I’m not really in a position to entertain,” I warned.
“Do not worry. We will not interfere or burden you with our presence,” Thor assured me.
They did interfere and burden me with their presence. Apparently they enjoyed surfing, because they went out to do it every day, tracking sand all over the house. Even Adelaide and Tabitha were better about not tracking sand all over the house. A few days into their stay, Thor tried to persuade me to take a trip up Highway One to San Francisco.
“I’m busy, Thor. You and Vidar should go. It’s a really beautiful drive. I can make you two an itinerary of places to see,” I said.
He tried to tell me that it was my company that mattered. Didn’t I want to take a vacation? It appeared to him that all I did was work.
“I was born and grew up here,” I reminded him. “I’ve seen everything there is to see. Multiple times.”
In the end, Thor won. During the drive, I learned more about what he and Vidar had been up to since the former’s rebirth. Vidar had found and raised Thor, so he had grown up knowing about his past even before his memories came back to him. They lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, supporting themselves as loggers. Neither of them had ever been to California. They were delighted by the sights.
We watched the elephant seals at Piedras Blancas and searched for moonstones on Moonstone Beach. I saw an otter in the water; it saw me, and raised its hands. Entering Big Sur, we seemed to drive above the clouds, glimpsing pieces of ocean and kelp forest through the fog.
In San Francisco, Thor and Vidar happily wandered with the other tourists. We admired the sea lions that sunned themselves at Fisherman’s Wharf and enjoyed walking Golden Gate Bridge and climbing the steps up Telegraph Hill. When they came upon Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, with its sun-dotted waters, Chinese pagoda, abundant turtles, and waterfowl, they were delighted.
On our last night in San Francisco, I took them to a Korean dive bar I had once frequented in the Outer Sunset, a cozy fairy light cave tucked into a garage, where we drank lots of flavored soju and ate lots of fried and spicy banchan. Afterwards, we walked back to our hotel via the beach, something I would have never done alone. But I felt happy and safe between them as we stumbled together across the sand, freezing despite all the alcohol. I resented that I felt happy and safe between them.
It wasn’t until we began the drive back home that Vidar asked if I would be meeting them at Idavoll.
“I already told Hermod. I have no intention of going to Idavoll.”
“Why not? All of our family will be there. Balder will be there,” Thor said.
“I have obligations in L.A. And my life is here,” I said. “My family is here.”
Thor was silent. I could tell I’d upset him.
“Do you not want to see our family?” Vidar asked. “Do you fear re-meeting Balder? You know he will hold you blameless for his death.”
“That’s because I was never responsible for his death,” I snapped. “You know that. You were both there, for both our deaths.”
They stared at me, confused.
I let out a short laugh. No one had ever credited them as the gods of empathy or perception, but really?
“Do you remember what happened after Balder died?” I asked.
They were still confused. Of course they remembered. They had been present and had participated in the throwing of weapons at Balder. Thor had pitched a minor fit when Mjolnir failed to cause any harm to our dear brother; it made him feel a bit impotent, you see.
“What happened was that Loki ran away,” I said. “Father announced that Balder’s death would be avenged, and Vali came soon after.”
I looked at the two of them.
“When all that happened? All of you just stood there, never once considering that I would never intentionally hurt—not to mention kill—my own brother.”
It was all bubbling up. Millenniums of resentment and hurt.
“I was your family too. You think it makes me feel better that you learned the truth after, to hear of what you did to Loki?”
They were quiet. Eventually, Thor said, “What happened, it was not entirely just. We realize that now.”
“What about back then? What were you thinking then?”
“To our eyes, it was your hand that caused our brother’s death. At the time, that was all we knew,” Vidar said. “But it gave me no pleasure to see you die. No one was happy to see you die.”
“So why didn’t you say anything?” I smiled. “Was asking a few questions before sending our newborn brother after me a little too much work? Like, why did this happen? Did Hod actually intend to kill Balder? Why, when Balder survived hammers and spears and swords, did a simple mistletoe end up killing him? How did Hod know that mistletoe would kill him? Why would mistletoe kill him?”
I looked at Thor, whose face was less remorseful than Vidar’s.
“And please don’t try and tell me that that was how things were back then. You can stand up to monsters and giants, and you’ll laugh in the face of Ragnarok, but you couldn’t stand up to our father. You couldn’t stand up to our mother. So to answer your question as to why I have no desire to visit Idavoll, that’s why. That day, I saw my family for what they were. I want no part of it.”
Thor was angry. I remembered how his moods could shift like a storm, his tendency toward violence in the face of displeasing news.
Do it, I thought. Prove to me that you haven’t changed one bit.
But Thor clenched his fists. He turned his face away.
I looked at Vidar. His face was guilty. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.
Suddenly, I hated them. For refusing to adapt and change, for living all these years such a minimalist and backwoods life. They clung to glories of the irrelevant past, yet whatever remained of the golden fields, the age of the gods was over.
“I don’t know why I’m arguing with you about this. What happened, happened,” I said. “Maybe you haven’t been able to find a place for yourself in this new world, but I have. Believe whatever you want, because what you believe has nothing to do with me.”
It was a quiet drive back to Venice. Neither of them broached the subject of Idavoll again, and while we tried discussing other things, our moods were somber. Once home, we said our awkward farewells.
I continued to receive other gods. Idun, a tenured professor in Turkey; Tyr, reborn as a striking Ethiopian woman; Skadi and Njord, living together in Salem; Brunhilde, currently working as a developer for a major start-up in Sunnyvale.
Vali was one of the last to come. He approached me one evening just as I was arriving home from work.
“Are you Hod?”
“Yes. And you are?” He looked young, high school or college age, far younger than any of the other gods, even the reborn ones.
He licked his lips. “I’m Vali.”
Vali, the one who killed me, covered in blood and birth, fully grown and yet one night old. My youngest brother, who I was laying eyes on for the very first time.
“We should talk,” I said.
Inside, I made him tea. We split a cinnamon scone I’d bought earlier that day. Vali wasn’t what I expected. I didn’t know what I expected. I knew he was a warrior like Thor and Vidar, that he fought in and survived Ragnarok. He resembled them in build, with dark hair like Vidar’s, but he carried himself so differently. More tentatively.
Vali shifted in his seat, uncomfortable.
“I didn’t know how you would react when you realized who I was,” he admitted.
“What did you expect?”
“I killed you. I figured you would be angry. You have good reason to be angry.” He played with his teacup. Steeling himself, he looked at me, his eyes searching.
“I am sorry, for killing you.”
The emotive force of his apology took me back. I realized this had been weighing on him for a long time—long before he learned he would have to come see me to receive his golden ring—and felt a horrifically inappropriate urge to laugh. Thor and Vidar had been careful to not talk too much about Vali, but what little they revealed was of a brave and ruthless fighter who did our father’s name proud. Had they been aware of our baby brother’s sensitive side?
I leaned forward in my seat.
“Vali, I want to make something clear,” I said. “I don’t in any way blame you for what happened. You were a day old. You weren’t there for what happened before. I mean it when I say that I don’t consider you responsible.”
He was crying. “I strangled you. I remember how you struggled, how it felt, when I strangled you.”
“Well, I’m not going to pretend that it wasn’t unpleasant.” I forced a smile. “Or that I’m happy about what happened. But as far as I’m concerned, that one’s all on Dad. And everyone else who just stood there.”
It took a while to persuade Vali. I was curious as to what had caused his remorse—surely he hadn’t been carrying it with him since the moment after he killed me—but today wasn’t the day to interrogate him about that.
Eventually, I got him to tell me what he had done after Ragnarok. “Do you keep in contact with the others?”
“On and off. I lived for a while with Vidar, and travelled for a long time with Hermod. I haven’t seen Thor since his rebirth.”
I didn’t ask after our parents, and Vali didn’t volunteer the information. He hesitated.
“I met Balder for the first time, about two months ago.”
“He was reborn like you, like a woman. I mean his new body is that of a woman.”
Vali was struggling to convey the sex transition, but for a moment I thought he was trying to say that Balder had been reborn as my identical twin. The thought filled me with horror. A long-lost twin! My parents fumbling to explain. Balder coming in and usurping my life. No legitimate argument for why Balder should be excluded from my life. Adelaide and Tabitha informing me that they liked Balder better (“She’s less grumpy! She isn’t as strict!”).
The moment passed.
“How is Balder?”
Vali looked at me. “She really wants to see you.”
Balder was the first god who actually called ahead of her arrival. When I picked her up at LAX, she hadn’t eaten, so I took her to the In-N-Out next door. We watched the planes take off and land over our burgers and fries. She had an accent, which surprised me. You never expect your sibling to have an accent different from your own.
Balder had been reborn around the same time as me, as the only child of a chemist and a teacher. She’d grown up in Singapore and moved to New Zealand after university. This was her first time in the States, and she talked excitedly about her experiences. She was eager to hear about my life.
I nodded along, trying to think of what to do next. I was reluctant to bring Balder back to my place. I ended up taking her to the Santa Monica Pier.
At sunset, it was a pretty place to walk around, to people-watch and see the carousel and carnival games and Pacific Park. As the sky darkened, the lights on the Ferris wheel lit up to perform their multi-colored displays.
We were running out of small talk, both fully aware of the reason for Balder’s visit. I took her for a ride on the Ferris wheel, pointing out the various landmarks and beaches along the coast, including the Canals where I lived. Afterwards, we walked down onto the sand, following the edge of the water.
“When did the memories start coming back?” Balder asked.
“During med school, about five or six years ago.”
“Mine came back after I moved to Auckland.”
Balder told me how her memories had started out as dreams. She told me how terrifying they had been. She thought she was going crazy. For a long time, she believed that the memories weren’t real. She had no one to share the memories with, no one to seek guidance from.
“A year later, Hermod found me. You wouldn’t believe what a relief it was. To know for sure that what I was remembering was actually real,” Balder said.
I did believe her. I fully empathized with her feelings of confusion and fear. I also wished she would stop telling me about them. It wasn’t fair for her to burden me with her existential crisis. I didn’t say this, of course, because I knew how she would react. She would cry. She would be pained and in shock. I would be the villain. A cold, callous, terrible villain of a twin.
I cleared my throat. “Your ring for Idavoll. I have it with me.” I took her ring and Draupnir from my bag, handed them to her. “You’re the last god. No others will need to find their way. Hermod said our father meant it as yours.”
She stared at the rings. “I gave Draupnir to Hermod. Hermod gave it to you.”
“You know I have no use for it. I’m giving it to you.”
“But how will you find your way to the fields?”
I sighed. “I know one of the others already told you my answer. I’m not going.”
“Tell me why.”
“The others can tell you why. I gave Thor and Vidar an earful as to why.”
I started walking back toward the pier. Balder grabbed my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” I jerked away.
“I don’t want to hear it secondhand. Tell me to my face why you won’t go.”
I stared at Balder. “Because my last memories of our family are bad ones. Really, really bad ones.” I smiled, pushed my hair out of my face. “I’m not like some of the others. I built an actual life here. I have a family. I have friends. People I’ve invested myself in. I’m not going to throw that away.”
“Who says you have to throw your new family away?”
“Why are we arguing about this? You’re not going to change my mind.”
“Is that the only reason?”
“What do you mean?”
“That the others stood by. Let Vali kill you.”
“Yes, Balder. That’s the only reason.”
“What if they were sorry for standing by?”
“They’re not sorry. Vali is sorry, but not the others. Not really.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because they said as much!”
I turned away from Balder and stared out at the water, at the colored lights that reflected off it. I knew what answer she was fishing for. She thought I felt guilty for killing her, for being the one to throw the mistletoe. No doubt she believed my admission would be cathartic. She was wrong. I refused to feel bad for what wasn’t my fault.
Balder touched my shoulder. “You and our brothers. You’re all the same.” Her voice was affectionate, almost amused.
“What do you mean?”
“Stubborn. Set in your ways. Refusing to admit to any kind of hurt.”
“I’m not hurt. I meant it when I said I don’t consider myself responsible for what happened to you.”
“You’re not responsible for what happened to me,” Balder said. “But what happened clearly didn’t leave you unaffected. I’m your sister. Unburden your heart. Let me help you move on.”
“I have two sisters. Their names are Adelaide and Tabitha.”
“I’m your sister, too.” She tugged me down so that I sat next to her on the sand. “If it isn’t hurt, tell me what it is instead. I never heard your side of the story. Tell me what you remember about that day.”
I didn’t like to recall that day.
I remembered Loki’s lips warm against my ear. He guided the mistletoe in my hands. I’d known of his reputation as trickster, but had no personal encounter with him before. I’d been sitting alone, unable to join in the festivities. His cajoling to participate was a welcome balm. While I pretended to have no interest in the games, I was in truth hurt to be excluded.
I remembered throwing the mistletoe. It hit its target. It pierced its target. Still holding me, Loki let out his breath as I waited to hear a sound, a laugh, from Balder. I never heard another sound from Balder. I heard the thudding of a body. I felt Loki detach from my body. I began to hear the questioning murmurs.
Was the god of light dead?
Was the god who everyone loved dead?
How was he dead?
My twin was dead.
It was not my intent that he be dead.
It was by my hand that he was dead.
Balder put her arms around me.
“I missed you, Hod,” she said quietly. “If there was something I could have done to change things, you know I would have.”
I wanted to disagree. “I know.” My voice was hoarse.
I let her hold me. We watched the lights on the water change colors and designs.
Many of the gods believed I was jealous of Balder. Their beliefs had upset me, even though they weren’t true. I was rarely jealous of my twin. I loved my twin. For the most part, I just wanted Balder to be a part of my life. I wanted to be a part of Balder’s life. Was that too much to want? To be an integral part of another person’s life?
The first time I visited Idavoll was shortly after I lost my sight. I was with Balder, and he’d pulled me along with his hands. When we arrived, I heard my twin’s quick intake of breath.
I could smell the sweet grass, could imagine its bright golden color. I felt the warmth of the sun against my skin, heard my twin’s delighted laughter. I remembered Balder’s next words:
“I wish that you could see this.”
His words had hurt me. He hadn’t said it to hurt me.
I re-entered the golden fields. There were crumbled ruins that hadn’t been ruins the first time I visited. New green growth was slowly overtaking the old. In the center of the fields was a table.
At it sat Vali, who smiled tentatively when he saw me. Next to him was Vidar, silent and large. There were two gods I didn’t recognize until I saw that Mjolnir between them. I had forgotten that Thor had two grown sons.
“You came,” said a voice behind me. I turned to see Balder, most gentle and loved of the gods. She smiled to see me, holding out a set of golden game pieces. They were familiar, those golden game pieces.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
I let Balder lead me toward the table, where she passed the game pieces to Vali, who began setting them up with the help of Vidar. Balder took her seat across from me, and I studied the face of this person who was my brother and my sister, my bane and my heart.
She saw me watching her. Her face was expectant. What was it I wanted to say?