Within the Cavern of the Metaphor

©2006 Ross E. Lockhart

“If we go in for abstract thinking, we have to forget that words were metaphors.” – Borges

Snorri shuddered from the cold and loss of blood. He tried to staunch the flow that drained from his useless left arm with a rag torn from the hem of his tunic. Realizing that such attempts were useless, he unbuckled his belt and removed it, letting his sword and scabbard drop to the floor, and fastened the belt in turn around his left bicep, an impromptu tourniquet, just above where the creature’s iron-cold claws had torn through skin, muscle, arteries, and veins. He pressed his weight against the cavern wall, exhaling an immense cloud of icy vapor as he did so, then glanced down at his mighty rune-covered warhammer, useless to a one-armed warrior.

Snorri bent down, his knees crackling with the chill, and grasped the leather-wrapped hilt of his short sword, then placed one foot upon the scabbard’s tip and wrestled the blade free. Snorri gazed back towards the creature’s lair, noting the red and orange play of the blazing firelight upon the rough-hewn walls and the thick black smoke that obscured the cavern’s ceiling. For a moment, he was almost fooled into believing that the monster was dead, but alas, the luck of Leif was not with him. The black shadow grew within the inferno, crawling along the wall towards him until the beast stepped full into the firelight, a black silhouette with wisps of acrid smoke curling off of its fur, its eyes glowing as if lit from within. The creature snarled, bared teeth glinting, its growl audible even above the roaring conflagration. Snorri realized that it now stood tall on two legs, a massive black shape like that of a bear or man, whereas earlier it had crawled, wolfen, on four.

Snorri stood, ignoring the pitch and roll of the cavern as so much pain-rooted hallucination, and pointed the tip of his sword toward the creature. “I am Snorri, son of Sturl, grandson of Rakkae the Dragonslayer,” he challenged, “and your line, foul thing, stops with me.” Snorri coughed as he pronounced the final syllables, and a dark trickle of blood and spittle escaped his weathered lips. The creature cocked back its head and chortled, then advanced, its titanic footfalls resounding through Snorri’s head.

The fat little red-faced priest had named the creature “Metaphor,” a Greek word, he’d claimed, meaning “to carry,” explaining that the beast carried on its mighty back all the fears of the tiny village. The Greeks, he’d said, lived far south, beyond even the Geats, in a land of perpetual summer. Snorri thought the idea ridiculous, like most of what the priest had said. The Metaphor had attacked three times, tearing through the wooden walls of the Great House like so much parchment, slaughtering a dozen men on each of the last three full moons. On its last terrible visit, the Metaphor had eviscerated chieftain Olaf Tryggvason, splitting him open from crotch to sternum, spilling his entrails like grain from a broken sack. It was Olaf’s son, Skirnir, a frail boy of no more than fourteen winters, who had assumed charge of the decimated tribe, now little more than a cluster of toothless old men, weeping women, and children, and sent for Snorri, offering scant treasures: a handful of ivory carvings, three intricate golden torcs, and the scattered brass and silver coins of a dozen realms in return for the creature’s head. Snorri, spurned on more by a desire for adventure and a chance to better his name than by Skirnir’s meager offerings, accepted, after all, neither man nor monster could stand for long against his hammer and blade.

Snorri moved away from the wall, continuing to point his blade towards the center of the Metaphor’s massive chest. Snorri’s own chest ached with each rasping breath, and his sword felt as if it weighed a hundred stone. The firelight glinted angrily off its edge and Snorri knew that it hungered for the beast’s black blood. He steeled himself for the inevitable attack, locking eyes with the monster’s abysmal gaze. Snorri had the fleeting thought that the monster itself was made of eyes. The Metaphor crouched, then leapt, rimmed by firelight in an infernal halo. As it careened towards him through the air, Snorri imagined the beast transforming, one instant, a bipedal bear-man, the next, a broad black wolf, and then, a great dark hawk speeding toward its prey. An eternity unfolded, a thousand images flashed through Snorri’s mind: his careless childhood, his first hunt and the ritual blood his father smeared onto his face, the first time he’d killed another man in battle, ensnared and bloodied in the clashing web of men. Finally, the Metaphor impacted, impaling itself upon Snorri’s blade, then wrapping its great ursine arms around him and pulling him close, crushing him in its dying embrace.

Snorri became aware of ten thousand things: the rich musk of the creature’s body buried beneath the scents of its caustic blood and burnt hair; the crackling of his own spine and ribs as the beast clutched him close with mighty, muscular arms and dragged him to the floor; the mingled heartbeats pounding forth a shared tattoo; the monster’s weight upon him; the irregular breaths, passionately gasping for sustenance, forming fleeting clouds, like souls, as they escaped; the blend of blood, the Serpent’s Water, spilling forth onto the cavern floor and becoming one. As the iron sleep of death swept over Metaphor and man in bleak and all-encompassing waves, Snorri realized that the monster was sobbing.

Snorri released his grip from the sword’s hilt. He pushed his right hand out from under the creature’s bulk, then reached up, straining until he could feel the black, matted fur crowning the back of the monster’s head. Snorri could feel his spirit ebbing away, and he thought he could hear the distant toasts and horns of his ancestors drawing close, the sounds of the Wild Hunt drawing near to collect him, but even still, he could hear the beast weeping in his ear. And so, with his mighty slaying hand, Snorri, son of Sturl, grandson of Rakkae the Dragonslayer ran his fingers through the Metaphor’s fur, stroking it, comforting the dying monster. “There, there,” he gasped, fighting for each breath. “You fought well, fought admirably. Valhalla beckons.” And there, within the Cavern of the Metaphor, wrapped within the eternal embrace of one another’s powerful arms, Snorri and the Metaphor died, and passed beyond, into the realm of the gods.