A Last King
I smelled old. That old man smell, not quite living, not quite dead. I can’t place it, it’s not like any other smell. I hope I don’t smell like that, like dingy grey old clothes that have been stored away, unused for years. Yet I felt in the presence of a great loss, as if a long line of my blood relations was being severed. Not just a line of common ancestors, but connection with royalty and greatness of the past. I was part of them and they were part of me, the ghost of ancestors.
I confess that I was envious. One of Jon Loftsson’s grandfathers was Saemender Sigfusson, who founded our school at Oddi and was responsible for educating so many, including me, through his legacy patronage. But more than that, Loftsson’s other grandfather was Magnus Barefoot Olafsson, King of Norway. We all knew the story of his ambush and assassination, the stuff of sagas. I was infatuated by his story as the Last Viking King. Imagine being the Last King. I could well imagine that for myself. It was in that moment I decided I would associate with the Norse king, the young Hakon in Norway, a boy king. There were openings, it was opportunity. Even at my own young age I understood clearly that being close to the powerful could give me notoriety and my own power. It would not come freely without investment on my part. That was quite fine with me; I knew even then that I had the interest and aptitude to be a great person, respected, perhaps admired if not loved by my country men. Feared maybe. I could be the most shining of all the Sturlunga.
I was obsessed with the stories, the sagas of the old kings and I knew that I had to gather them together and write them down, so that I would know them better, so that I could tell those stories as part of my own legacy. Even then I was becoming known as a gifted poet and orator. I wanted all of it, power, fame, adoration through those skills I had learned at Oddi. I knew even then that I had it in me to be great above others. There was a king in me. I could be history myself by taking what was already history and sharing it with the world through written word.
I was eighteen when Jon Loftsson died. Oddi was in shambles the day he passed. There was sobbing and moaning, from the church there was chanting that covered the whole place like a shroud. Our great man was gone. The Last King, though he was not really a king. It was one of those days when you knew that life would never be the same afterwards. Every time someone as great as Jon Loftsson leaves the world we are diminished by the loss.
I didn’t notice at first. It happened slowly over several years. Sometimes it would take him much longer to remember a proper word to use in his oration. He would take long pauses in his speech, not willing to use a lesser word. We were patient at first, but then some of the younger boys began to make jest of his lack. Not in front of him or in earshot of the priests or Saemunder. I should have told them to stop, but I didn’t. His hearing left him. He had to lean in close to make out words. Often asked what had been said, if the voice wasn’t clear from across the room. He began to speak louder, as if we couldn’t hear his voice. But then his voice, which had once been clear and precise, that had always spoken with elegance and command, grew weak so that he was unable to speak loudly. His eyes dimmed, he shed much of his hair and grew quite thin.
It all happened by what seemed such a gradual change but as I recollect his aging, it now seems to have happened quite suddenly. He was proud and strong one moment and then he was withered and failing. His teeth went and he could not hold his bowels or make water. I had seen this often, of course, with the older priests that grew bent and grey, withered and limp like a dying flower, but when it was Loftsson’s turn it took me by surprise that my great man, foster father and proud leader of all of Iceland, might fade before our eyes and disappear like a vanishing shadow. My great Jon Loftsson was vincible, mortal.
That would not be my fate, I said to myself. I would always be young and strong and right. As I grew older I understood better that Loftsson must have tolerated my naiveté. Attributed it to the arrogance of my youth, impervious to the trials of life. When the final breath surrendered from his body, there was a certain violence in it, as if his soul were ripped away and cast into the heavens like a jagged stone skipped across the roiling Ranga only to inevitably sink.
I wondered what would become of Oddi and the Oddaverjar without Loftsson. The power of the clan was held in his hands, his strength, political and learned. I wondered if Saemunder or his brother Bishop Pall could stand in their fathers shoes and carry on with the same greatness. Though I had seen death often and understood the ending of a living thing, this was much more personal for me, much more real and sudden like a bolt striking me. He was there and then he was not. He was and then he was no more. If this fate could happen to Loftsson then it could happen to me as well.
I tried to imagine his spirit departing his body and going to another place. But to where? Heaven, the priests said, and I had always accepted this without question, though I often thought they had confused heaven with Valhalla because we had been made to be Christian. I looked skyward, as his spirit left, wondering if I might see his dim shadow rising like pale smoke upward into the wind. There was nothing, no smoke, no orb of light, no tiny glowing sun floating away from his body, no sound except the last rattling air escaping lungs that could no longer hold it.
As I looked upon his deadness I was ashamed for him, that he had to suffer this final humiliation. But there seemed something not final in the way of his passing. No blood or shattered teeth or bone, hewn limbs, or angry shouting. I had a feeling as I looked upon Loftsson’s ashen skin, that perhaps something nefarious happened to him. Perhaps one of his enemies, for we all had enemies, undertook to make his life shorter than it should have been. Perhaps there was some undetectable poison, monk’s hood or wolfsbane, that an assassin had secreted into his food or drink. I wondered who might benefit from Loftsson’s untimely demise, but I could think of nobody. We all were punished by his death; the loss was felt by all of Iceland.
I was so young then. Young enough to think I knew everything or that I could easily come by the answer to anything. Young enough to believe I was invincible and that life was not a finite thing for me. But as I watched Loftsson’s life leak away like water slipping through fingers, I came to the very beginning of my own sense of mortality and it shocked me out of my fog.
The Oddaverjar would not be the same without Jon Loftsson. He and the great ones before him would be the end of Iceland’s most powerful clan. I felt his death would take part of my own assumed power with him. He was not like a person any longer. His body, his corpse seemed to have grown smaller, shrunken. He became just a statue, a carving of something imagined, like a doll or plaything, something that never had life. The greatness was gone and all that was left was this lesser shell. My mind was reluctant to let any memory of the great man escape. I tried to recall memories of the living man, to have something of him to cling to, his kindness, sternness, his brilliant oration, jocularity, and compassion. But none of these remembrances came to me.
All I could recall of the great Jon Loftsson were those ending times. I watched him withdraw from the world, become inward looking and silent; he spoke of visions, saw things and people that weren’t there; he took very little sustenance; became confused and agitated and the pallor of his skin changed its hue, right before our eyes, slowly, until it was the pale milky blue that covered him in his death. It was as though he transformed from a man into a statue as the life ebbed from him.
I stood against the wall with others. I had the privilege to be there at the moment of passing only because Jon was my foster father and I was like a son, though not in the manner of Saemunder or Pall. Ragnheidur came to the bedside and knelt beside her husband. Saemunder and Pall stood each on one side of her and they prayed to the Christ. Bishop Pall finally spoke.
“He breathes no more,” he said.
Ragnheidur wailed with such agony that my body shivered. The light, the life was gone from Loftsson’s eyes and I wished that someone would close the lids over the lifeless orbs, so that I could imagine him just sleeping and not a dead useless thing.
I had seen dead people often, bodies in various states of convulsion, destruction, putrefaction and disarray. Every time I was struck with the same notion of human life, like an onion peeled away one layer of skin at a time until there was nothing left. Every single time made me wonder what happened to the essence of the life that existed inside that body of flesh.
The priests are all very convincing. Praying and chanting, constantly repeating words that remind us we are obligated to believe in the Christ and his teaching. Rules. Though we had been a profoundly Christian nation for nearly two hundred years, I still felt deep within myself, an affinity towards our old Gods, as imperfect as they are. They more resemble myself or I resemble them in imperfection embedded within excellence.
Nay, I did not have deep sadness or regret for someone lost, as I looked upon Jon Loftsson’s cold grey visage, like mud and stone from the Ranga shaped to look like a man. I marveled at my own ambivalence. I wondered if there was something amiss inside my own heart and mind at my lack of empathy. When I could no longer abide Ragnheidur’s continuous wailing I left the chamber, with not much more sad feeling than when I entered.
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