Thor stopped by for a visit late last night.
I was deep in sleep when I heard the sharp crack of a sonic boom, and a loud thump from the side of the house. I jumped out of bed and into my clothes and a pair of warm slippers — noticing that my wife had somehow slept through all the noise — and went outside to see what had happened.
There in my yard was a large cart with a pair of goats hitched to it, and a man standing before my ash tree. He was about 6’4″ tall, broadshouldered and muscular, with a full red beard and wearing mail armor and iron gloves. He was also wielding a hammer, and before I could protest, he swung it at my tree…and there was another loud thundercrack, and my ash shattered as if lightning-struck. My visitor gathered up some of the burning fragments and tossed them into a pile, and threw down a massive remnant of the trunk as a bench.
He said, “Hello. Care to join me in a late night snack?” and scooped up one of the goats by the hindlimbs. A quick slash of a knife, and the beast was disemboweled, the guts splattering in a messy lump on my lawn; a deft twist and tear and the carcass and skin were separated. The skin was tossed down in a bloody bundle next to the guts, and the meat was skewered on a branch and staked out over the fire.
Yeah, Thor. There was no mistaking him.
What are you going to do? I said I’d be happy to, and that I just needed to grab a few things from inside.
I brought back salt and rosemary, and a fifth of Johnnie Walker Black. Thor grinned at that; the old customs of hospitality were not forgotten. We shared a swig, he rubbed down the goat with the spices, put it back over the fire, and we sat down on the log and enjoyed the warmth.
It’s not easy starting a conversation with a god. We sat in silence for a while, sharing the bottle. A police car ghosted up the road, a spotlight flicking from house to house; it dwelt on us for a bit, the car paused, and then the engine revved and it quickly accelerated away. Nothing happening in this neighborhood tonight, no sir.
“You know, you’re right,” Thor suddenly said, “there is no supreme being, no cosmic intelligence. All of the gods are atheists, too, and we’d know.”
That was too funny to pass up. “The gods don’t believe in gods? If you don’t exist, what are you doing in my yard then, shredding the shrubbery?” I replied.
“Nah, come on, you know better than that. You’re playing games with the language — this sloppy, ambiguous language.”
“I wield vast powers; I can rive my foes with a thunderbolt, I’m well nigh invulnerable to anything any human could throw at me, I travel between worlds at will, and I’m over 5,000 years old,” he said. “To you, I’m like a god, a being of powers you can scarcely imagine. But I’m not the kind of god most people nowadays chatter about: an omnipotent omnipresent will that knows everything and can do anything. That kind of thing just doesn’t exist.”
“But how can you be so certain?” I asked. “Ten minutes ago I would have told you the Norse pantheon was nothing but a myth, and now here you are, a piece of evidence showing that I was wrong. Perhaps another bit of information will reveal that the Christian super-god is also real.”
“Let me tell you a story,” Thor said. “Imagine that it is midnight, the long hall is dark, and you’re told that an enemy lurks invisibly in the darkness. You would advance with great fear, because it is entirely possible that someone is stalking you.”
“Then you are given a candle; a feeble light that lets you see in a dim glow things that are nearby. It’s possible still that the danger is there, but that it scuttles about beyond the edge of your light, seeing you clearly, but you can’t see it at all — it dodges detection at will.”
“You find a box of candles. You move cautiously through the hall, placing lights in all the likely hiding places. At first you only illuminate a few places and it’s still possible that something hides beyond, but as more and more candles are placed, you become increasingly confident that no other person is in the hall other than yourself.”
“And finally you have lit enough of the hall that you can see the full shape of the room, the furnishings, the doors and windows. There are shadows still and much that could be better illuminated, but no place for an enemy.”
“Perhaps a mouse. You can’t rule out mice. But mice weren’t what you were warned about.”
The goat was ready. Thor hacked off bits of the greasy meat with his knife, and handed me a chunk. I nibbled, he tore into it with gusto.
“You know, you’re nothing like how you’re portrayed…” I started to say.
“Don’t you dare bring up that garish clean-shaven dandy from the comic books! I swear, he’s blonde and speaks like some Elizabethan fop!”
“No, no, of course not — I mean, the old myths, where you’re kind of a brute, not given much to thoughtfulness, and you seem to solve everything with a good solid bash of the hammer,” I said. “Not exactly the type to sit down with a peasant and talk atheism and knowledge.”
“Please. I’m an intelligent being,” Thor said, “perhaps not one with the greatest reputation for philosophizing, I’ll agree, but I’m thousands of years old. You cannot exist as a being responsive to its surroundings, with a capacity for any kind of ability to react to and interact with its environment, and fail to change over time. ”
“This is one of the great failings of the human imagination. They may blithely postulate immortal beings, but they don’t think it through: stasis is death. Change is life. You cannot have the ability to change and grow without also having the possibility of failing and dying; and a life of unchanging constancy is not worth living, and isn’t really a life at all. No being can live except with the possibility of death.”
“Right,” I said, “and the Norse myths predict your death in the coils of Jörmungandr — immortality isn’t even a necessary property of a god.”
Thor smirked at that one. “Yes, but keep in mind that prophecies are nothing but promises, and there’s no guarantee they’ll be kept. I’ll someday cease to exist, that’s a certainty, but the how of it is unknowable. It’s safe to predict I die a hero’s death at the end of the world, because if I don’t, who’s going to complain?”
The whisky was running low. Thor had drunk most of it — with no complaint from me — and didn’t show the slightest sign of an effect. Another of the advantages of godhood, I suppose.
“I’m wondering,” I said, ” why you gods have been so scarce lately. In the old stories you’re constantly meddling in the affairs of humans, yet now god-news is unheard of, and rather ridiculous when people do make claims. Did you tire of us? Is it like some people say, that you all faded away with the loss of worshippers?”
Thor sloshed the last of the whisky in the bottle, and then downed it all in one gulp. He took his time answering.
“I suppose that, as an atheist, you won’t take this the wrong way, but…the gods were never into you humans at all. The few instances where we did meet were inflated by the self-centeredness of you people into grand events. We’re powerful beings with our own goals and ideals, and most of what engages us doesn’t intersect with your interests at all. Why should you expect a god to care about the outcomes of your battles, or even more absurdly, the outcomes of your sports and games? Your dogs probably think your whole world revolves around them, but you know it doesn’t — much as you may enjoy their company, they aren’t the purpose of your existence.”
“People are also so ephemeral to us. Your lives flit by as you struggle for transient glories that will be forgotten after your deaths. There’s no point for us to get invested in your concerns.”
“But don’t take it badly. Just as you might go to the shore and find contentment and joy in watching the waves crash against the rocks and wind and the clouds and the rain scud by in changing patterns, and watch the sun rise and set over the sea, we also see the beauty in the endless motion of humanity. You are what you are, it is our love for you that lets us stand aside and savor your existence as it is.”
He set the empty bottle aside, and rose up. He gathered the leftover goat bones and scooped up the pile of guts, wrapped them in the bloody skin, and in a move so swift I couldn’t follow it, suddenly held in his arms the resurrected goat. Thor tied the goats in their traces, waved goodbye, and in a flash of light, vanished to the east.
The sun rose. I sat a little longer and enjoyed the view.
Damn, I’m going to miss that tree.