George C. Chesbro

The Beasts Of Valhalla


Game of Beasts


An August Sunday, so hot you couldn't tell sweat from tears. It was an expensive funeral, costing more than I suspected my sister and her husband could easily afford, in a bargain basement family plot inside a rummage sale cemetery. Somebody had sold my sister the Deluxe Package, silk-lined mahogany casket and an acre or two of flowers that served only to magnify the decrepitude of the small village cemetery. The rusting backhoe that had dug and would refill the grave was visible a hundred yards away, parked beside a rotting maintenance shack. The backhoe's unshaven operator was sitting in its cab, chewing the stub of yesterday's cigar and reading last month's magazine.

'Amen,' the young, fresh-faced minister intoned as he finished a prayer. He sprinkled a handful of dirt over the lowered casket, wiped his hands.

'Shit,' Garth murmured. We were standing a few yards apart from the rest of the family-our mother and father, Janet and her husband, assorted cousins, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts. There were a lot of Fredericksons in Peru County, Nebraska.


'How are you holding up?'

The sun was directly behind my brother's hand, forming a shimmering penumbra around thinning, wheat- colored hair that waved like a shredded, sad banner in the gentle, hot breeze that blew through this wasteland of weeds and pitted grave markers. 'Why ask me? Tommy was your nephew, too.'

'You know what I mean. We've been here two days now, and I thought you might be feeling the effects.'

'I'm all right.'

It wasn't true. Although I loved my parents dearly, wrote regularly, and had, over the years, managed to coax members of my immediate family into visiting me in New York City, home for me represented nothing so much as a long nightmare that had taken a lot of time and shrink money to kick into submission. I hadn't been back to Peru County in seventeen years, and the fragility of the scars remaining on my psyche amazed me. I felt porous, like something filled with stale air that was compacting under pressure of memory so fierce it was threatening to squeeze away and pop my center. Only something like the death of a favorite nephew could have brought me back to Peru. I knew it was a silly and unbecoming way to feel in the face of the awesome peace Tommy Dernhelm had found, but people preoccupied with questions of self-worth are easily smothered by the trivial. The me that had been constructed and nurtured far from this place was gasping for breath, desperate for escape.

It was finished. We all gathered around Janet and stood in silence for a few moments, as though sheer numbers were a poultice that could absorb some of her pain. Then we started slowly back along the dusty path leading out of the cemetery. Unconsciously, like a marionette still controlled by rotten strings implanted in its soft center a long time ago, I found myself walking apart from the other members of the family, as if I were something disgusting that could only add to the shame surrounding Tommy's death. Garth, as he had always done, walked with me.

Growing up a dwarf is a real pain in the mind; you're always a foot or two, and a lot of poundage, behind the inevitable tormenters. Also, in fairness to the fun group that had tossed me around like a medicine ball in an alley behind the local movie theater one night, I wasn't exactly the mellowest kid in the neighborhood; I'd never suffered anybody, much less loud-mouthed fools, gladly. My brain had always been quick enough, and I'd been able to out- insult any gang of ten in the school. The problem, as I'd quickly learned, was (hat a sharp tongue was no defense against a punch in the mouth. The fact that Garth always thumped on the people who thumped on me wasn't enough. I hadn't needed an avatar so much as I'd needed to find my own means of self-defense and feelings of self-worth in a world of bigger things and bigger people where I'd always felt in imminent danger of being crushed, physically and spiritually.

The love of my family, combined with Garth's muscle, had carried me through childhood and adolescence; I'd known that I was going to have to make it as a whole, if undersized, adult on my own.

I'd escaped from Peru County by means of an academic scholarship to New York University. In New York, a state of mind as well as a geographical location where just about all things great and small would be considered freaky by Peru County standards, I'd immediately felt at home, and had begun to escape from the terrible, debilitating preoccupation with my dwarfism. I'd majored in criminology, probably out of a perverse fascination with freaks of a different dimension, graduated with honors, an invitation to graduate school, and the offer of a post as a research assistant.

I'd succeeded in school-but then, I'd always succeeded in school. I had other, more pressing, hungers-other things to prove. Nature, in her infinite irony, had made me a dwarf, but with maturation I discovered that I had also been endowed with considerable, if improbable, physical skills-excellent reflexes, coordination, and speed. Being a somewhat unusual dwarf-a redundancy, if ever there was one-in need of a means of livelihood, I pursued the only logical course of action: I joined the circus, in this case one owned by a gentleman named Phil Statler-the ugliest and kindest human being I've ever known.

With the exception of my parents and Garth, Statler would become the most nurturing influence in my life. He'd seen in me possibilities as a performer that no one else, most particularly me, would ever have thought of. I'd eventually become a star attraction with the Statler Brothers Circus, a headliner as a kind of funky gymnast and aerialist bouncing and flying his way through a succession of visually spectacular stunts involving fire and ice.

I parlayed my developing physical skills into a black belt in karate, and used the money I earned to finance my doctorate in criminology. With my advanced degree in hand, I retired from the circus and took up a post as an associate professor at NYU.

By this time Garth had joined me in the city, where his own considerable talents had led to his rapid advancement in the NYPD. As for me, I'd left the circus when I was on top and was settling into a career in academia… and I still wanted more. I wasn't certain what I wanted more of, but it seemed I needed constantly to test myself against new challenges. Garth called it overcompensation, and I couldn't argue with him.

I acquired a private investigator's license, well aware that no sane person was likely to hire a dwarf as a private detective and that I'd probably never earn a penny in this particular corner of the marketplace. Surprise. I didn't get a lot of business, but the business I did get was certainly challenging; like some kind of bent, psychic lightning rod, I seemed to attract only the most bizarre cases. No matter how simple or straightforward an investigation might appear at the beginning, it almost inevitably ended up with people shooting at me, or worse. By now I'd achieved a certain degree of notoriety, a state of celebrity which NYU looked upon with distinct disapproval. However, I was still teaching-and I was still investigating, whenever a case came my way. The dual careers had kept me busy, reasonably satisfied, and reasonably happy.

Until now.

Now it was all escaping from me. All my successes, my very sense of self, was imploding under the pressure of memory. I was losing my center, feeling like a frightened, angry, defiant-and worthless-dwarf child again.

My brother grunted softly, a kind of warning. I looked up from the ground and saw the gaunt figure standing on the hillside, partially eclipsing the sun. His features were blacked out, but the shape of the boy had grown into the shape of the man. I would have known him anywhere.

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