Dorene O’Brien


Dorene O’Brien is a fiction writer from Detroit. She has won the Red Rock Review Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction, the New Millennium Fiction Award and the Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award. She also won the international Bridport Prize and is the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her short stories have appeared in the Connecticut Review, Madison Review, the Chicago Tribune, the Montreal Review, Cimarron Review, Detroit Noir and others. Voices of the Lost and Found, her first full-length short fiction collection, won the USA Best Books Award in Fiction. She is currently writing a novel featuring fossil hunters in Ethiopia. Visit her at

The Final Viking Voyage

The hammer of the gods
Will drive our ship to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying:
Valhalla, I am coming!

—Led Zeppelin, “The Immigrant Song”

Our friends set sail when the glaciers in the fjords cracked and echoed like cannons firing through the valley, when the ice relinquished its frigid hold on the North Sea, when, in short, Sweyn the Dreadful demanded they go. Fifty Vikings heaved their longship into the frothing waves whereupon they put hand to oar and rowed with a passion typically reserved for seduction or marauding. Why were our heroes so fiercely bent? The trees had been burned up in the iron smelts, the grass eaten to the root by sheep, the crop soil stripped of its catch and hold. Leif Erickson (may his glory be safe!) had misnamed Greenland as its eager settlers learned when they landed on its rocky shores and swarmed over its raw terrain in search of anything green. Iceland was closed to settlement, the sod houses of the Kveldulf, Gufa and Svavarsson clans and their filthy Pictish servants dotting the landscape from shore to shore, and Scotland, Ireland and England were also overrun, housing nothing more than slaves that would be ripe for the picking after the Vikings had discovered a new, unspoiled land for them to till.

But I will not mislead you; these were King Sweyn’s concerns. Our heroes, while certainly stirred by the state of affairs and the prospect of a valiant rescue, were more secretly compelled by a season or two at sea, a reprieve from Brunhilde’s demands to muck out the midden and Sweyn’s edict that his four swine-faced, rat-eyed daughters be wed before solstice. It may warm your heart to learn that even the burden of seeking land they were not certain existed did not stop the crew on this particular ship from feeling lucky, so lucky, in fact, that they hoisted the battle-scarred dragon head from the boat’s nether regions and lashed it tight to the prow, even as they cut through the salty sea at a good 14 knots. Every man to the last one knew that it was a bad omen to lose the deeply-carved, narrow-fanged monster whose scales had been rubbed smooth by the thousands of hands that had stroked its neck in prayer for safe voyage. Even the men tossed overboard by wanton seas or flung into the abyss by crewmates who feared their open sores and their savage eyes did not blame the dragon for their bad luck, but rather stared at her solemnly, even longingly, before being sucked down by the sea.

But this is not a sad story, for our crew were mostly hearty men, weathered and honed by former voyages and hand-picked by King Sweyn, except for Askold, who claimed that he had been chosen to lead by Odin, the god of war himself, two weeks before the Vikings set off on their crucial odyssey. Askold and Helga had been sitting on the lip of the Roskilde Fjord eating herring when the sky opened to release its watery complaint. Some say that had Askold not been staring at the box broach pinned to the tunic over Helga’s ample breast he would have seen the lightning bolt long before it simultaneously struck him dumb and cast him into a hero’s role. To hear Askold tell it, Odin’s bolt had careened across the sky, zigzagging from the Hebrides to Greenland and back to Denmark in search of a worthy man, red-bearded and lusty and hale. Does it matter that Askold is the son of Sweyn the Dreadful, the grandson of Hoaer the Horrible, that it is his birthright to lead? Well, no. Most of the men believed that Odin, with his Askold-seeking lightning missile, was actually trying to kill the man, or at least send a strong message that he did not want Askold leading this historic voyage. But, alas, who are we to ponder the intentions of the gods?

And so the saga began.

Young Sigvatr had been foolish enough to demand that he himself lead this weighty expedition, at which time Gunnar rammed him in the gut with his head, knocking him into the goat pen and revitalizing his long-dormant ulcer. Young Sigvatr was a farmer, and as he lay in a nest of soiled hay surrounded by Gunnar’s mangy goats, he was sorry he had donated his entire harvest to the crew for the upcoming journey. He had hoped that Sweyn would reward him grandly for his generosity, but he realized then that his recompense would be a hard bench and a stiff oar. “Hang it all,” he muttered, and the men clutched their hard bellies and laughed.

Gunnar the Giant was chosen not because he’d slaughtered his fattest goats and offered to bring his thinnest ones to fatten along the way, but because he was a mighty colossus at six foot nine and three barrels heavy, easily twice the size of any Viking who’d shown his chiseled face around Scandinavia. Sure he would weigh them down, but the draught was already shallow for low riding, and what man would complain to feel his muscles flex and burn as he rowed?

Well, Ragnar would. Ragnar, who did not want to feel his muscles flex and burn but rather wanted to wear the colorful tunic and finely woven chain mail reserved for the ship’s leader, had certainly harbored fiery desires to lead this crew, for everyone supposed that this would be the last great Viking voyage and its leader would be carved in his resplendent finery onto a massive rune for posterity. But Ragnar was chosen only as a fine craftsman who made beautiful bronze and silver inlaid swords and smooth wooden-handled battle-axes (and necklaces and box broach pins for the likes of Helga, who continued to wear them over her breast to the great distraction of the Viking men). He had outfitted every warrior on this expedition with weaponry: spears that flanged at the base like the petals of a grassland flower, helmets carved in a fussy script with the ship’s name: Vinland, after the land of sweet fruit and rich soil they felt destined to find, oblong-shaped missiles that, frankly, the men felt resembled parts of the male anatomy they would just as soon not grip tightly in their rugged fists before flinging across the open water at enemies on nearby vessels. The men found Ragnar’s weapons sturdy but unnecessarily intricate and, without putting too fine a point on it, his manner a little too fastidious.

Then there was Canute, who would sail in Great Snorri’s place. Snorri had led the Lindisfarne Monastery assault back in the day, had come home with sacks of jewel-studded crosses, gold and silver statues that Ragnar had lovingly melted into lavish drinking horns, and ten sniveling monks who would make the best ale on the western seaboard. Despite his pleas and curses, Snorri was just too feeble for marauding, so his first-born son would man his oar. Canute was a big boy with a befuddled look, and though he had the might of an ox, the creator for reasons unknown to mere mortals had bestowed upon him the brains of an ox to match. Enough said!

Tostig the Terrible was the obvious leader, though no one dared say it as Askold had such a noble lineage, after all. Didn’t his grandfather Hoaer bring back boatloads of slaves from the Faeroes and the Orkneys? Didn’t he rule the seas from Ireland to Denmark, Greenland to Norway? Well, clearly he did so many things that there was little pressure on his descendants to do little more than exist. Sure, his son Sweyn had some of the old man’s Viking spirit in him, lopping off the occasional head or wrestling a withered boar. But fate can be wretched, and by the time this once potent bloodline had reached poor Askold, whose task was nothing less than the salvation of the Vikings, it appeared sapped of its strength and sense. This is why Tostig, descended from a long line of formidable warriors, was the unchristened choice of the men. Tostig had a taste for it, with a with a glut of slashed throats and piked heads to his credit; needless to say, Tostig was beloved, so that as he flexed his muscles and thwamped the men on their backs, a mutiny of which no one was yet consciously aware was conceived.

What of Bjorn, Oleg and Einarr? Rigsson, Tindr and Egill? Yes, yes, they were aboard too, but their contributions, while heroic and manly, are not pertinent to our story. Should I write the entire saga, list the names of all fifty men, each Dane, each Svear, each Goth? What of the sons they left behind? The cows and goats and boars? The women? You ask too much! I can only tell you what I know, and that is the journey of six men on the Viking longship, Askold at the helm, donning the colorful leader’s tunic, Ragnar pretending to row as he stared, rapt, at the luminous robe, Gunnar the Giant picking up the slack without even noticing, Young Sigvatr ignoring the great pain in his belly while leaning his nominal weight into the oar, Canute rowing absently, puzzled by the ship’s complex contrivances, Tostig glaring at Askold as he stroked the scales on the huge dragon’s mahogany head.

It will not surprise you that our sailors laughed heartily as they rowed past Scotland, peeked down the jagged spine of the Hebrides toward the dark hills of Ireland. “Sleep well,” yelled Tostig, and the crew cackled, each one harboring visions of the men they would yoke and the maids they would mount in celebration of their return with news of a great expanse of green, green land on the other side of the great salt sea. “Yes,” yelled Askold, “sleep well!” But Askold was late, not to mention unoriginal, with his statement, and there was little comfort to see that only Canute was laughing. There would have been less comfort had he known that Canute was only belatedly registering Tostig’s comment. An hour later, when the vessel approached the deep shoals of the Shetlands and the sun shone with fierce determination on the heads of each of our heroes, Canute would burst into a seizure of laughter, only then registering Askold’s plagiarized remark.

Such is the humor on a Viking ship. You may not think our men had a sense of humor, but let me insist that it was not all bloodwork and beheading. Imagine being on a 100-foot vessel with 49 men, 20 sheep, 10 chickens, 4 goats and a sow and boar you prayed daily would come to a physical accord; humor was necessary. The men told stories of Thor, dressing as a blushing bride to trick the prince of the frost giants into returning his stolen hammer, Loki being dragged through thorny bushes by an angry giant, and Helga! There was much to be said about Helga, though it should have remained suspended between the minds and the tongues of the many men who had gazed longingly at her box broach pin and beyond. That they spoke so freely of Helga before him was, to Askold, a treacherous, treacherous thing about which he would, being bereft of the temperament of his forebears, remain silent. The men didn’t speak of their own women and their shrill gripes—clear that stench in the smokehouse, the roof needs new sod!—for there was little humor in that.

On they sailed past the Shetlands and Iceland, then south into the ocean’s great wide girth, an Arctic wind rattling the shields that hung like oversized necklaces across the longship’s port and starboard sides. For many miles they did not see glacier or fjord, mountain or island, and this is as the gods would have it. They released captured sea birds—gulls and terns and albatross—and carefully charted their direction, but the birds returned and the men knew that Vinland was still a far off dream. Perhaps this journey would necessitate an even greater absence! Praise be to Odin, you might say, but I would caution you not to be too hasty in your gratitude to the gods.

Transatlantic voyages are not easy, particularly in a Viking ship on which sheer muscle and one large sail comprise the vessel’s motivation. We must not forget that 50 men have 50 personalities, that sheep bleat as loudly and continuously on water as they do on land, that goats will withhold milk and chickens eggs on stormy seas, and that ours is not to understand nor expedite the seduction impulse of the boar. Do not misapprehend me: Our men were not hungry, for daily they received a ration of boiled goat and salted bacon. There was much fruit in the larder when they first set out, wild plums and crab apples, raspberries, cherries and elderberries, not to mention goat cheese and crusty flat loaves. I do not have to tell you that it is next to impossible to contrive a cheese processing endeavor on a Viking ship, and so after a month of forcing down the greenish clumps of foul-smelling mush, the men threw the remaining cheese overboard to rot the guts of unsuspecting cod. But there were still walnuts and hazelnuts, dried venison and elk, honey and peas, and let’s not forget the sheep, goats, chickens and boars penned in the stern, not so much enjoying as tolerating a journey they could hardly be expected to fathom.

But these men, being Viking men, do not own the temperament of the farm animal and, by logical extension, do not tolerate. By the time the great square sail had crossed the 45-degree latitude line almost exactly between the Azores and Newfoundland, our heroes were tired, not so much of the oar but of one another. Canute—will the gods never cease to confound us?—noticed that the wood in his partner Ragnar’s oar was still deeply carved, the handle barely altered by sweat and grip as is, for the astute and committed rower, a common eventuality. There was a striking difference in Gunnar’s oar, which had four deeply-carved grooves in the front and a small hole wearing through the wood in back where his thumb had pushed against the mighty force of his fingers. Even Young Sigvatr, whose stomach pain worsened with each knot, had worn the head of his oar to a nub. Canute meant no harm; Tostig had overheard him praising Ragnar’s gift from Odin: an eternal oar. Canute likened the oar to Thor’s hammer, Iduna’s golden apples, Odin’s eight-footed horse, things his father had said would last until Ragnarok, the final destruction, signaled by a triple winter, three terrible years of mist and ice.

“You must thank Odin,” he said to Ragnar, who had been cleaning the dirt from under his nails with a spear point. “We cannot fail with a magic oar!”

While Askold simply existed, Tostig watched and listened, as born leaders are wont to do, and told Canute to monitor this curious enchantment.

“Watch him closely,” he commanded in a voice calculated to gain the attention of the rest of the crew, “and confirm that he is smiled upon by the gods, that even under the great stress we know he will demand his oar will defy corruption!”

The men guffawed and Canute thought that perhaps they did not really believe the oar had been charmed.

“Yes!” cried Askold as he skittered from the prow to mid-ships. “Watch him closely!”

The men looked at their feet, their fingernails, the floorboards of the ship. Vikings are not exempt from awkward moments.

Canute took his order seriously, watching Ragnar almost as closely as the men watched the female boar’s continual refusal to be mounted, watched the salted meat ration diminish, watched the horizon stretch out in a smooth, unencumbered line. As Askold slept Tostig suggested that all change rowing partners—well, all but Canute and Ragnar—and extended breaks when the gods blew favorable winds; the men leaned back in their seats gnawing on strips of venison jerky and watching the great sail that had formerly struck fear into the hearts of countless men puff and billow with the breath of Vili and Ve. They sang Viking songs, they good-naturedly blasphemed the enchanted oar, they marveled at how not only his oar but his hands must have been charmed as the sores, calluses and blisters that covered the other men’s palms were mysteriously absent on Ragnar’s. The men howled as this latest revelation registered on Canute’s awestruck face. It was all good fun until Ragnar, in a state of angry distraction, tinkled on Gunnar the Giant’s shield as he arced his stream across the bumpy sea. Silence engulfed the ship and even Canute didn’t think his magic oar could save him when Gunnar lifted Ragnar over his head and prepared to flick him overboard.

Of course it was Tostig, always Tostig, who leapt into action, poking the oversized Viking in the back with a spear, one that had been lovingly molded by the man it would now defend, and this, my friend, is a thing of Norse legend (though, as you might guess, the story of the Soiled Shield has not been celebrated in the runes). The promise of a new shield was simply extracted from Ragnar before he was tossed, almost gently, into the animal pen, where in a burst of wild optimism the male boar attempted to mount him. The happy squeals of the boar woke Askold, who screamed like a maid when he saw Ragnar tussling with the amorous swine.

“What’s this?” he demanded, but the men simply turned away and took up their oars. Askold noted it, and upon return to Denmark decided that he would tell his father.

The longship forged ahead, ushered by strangely warm winds, blown by gods surely unknown to them, gods with fire in their bellies. Because these men understood the connection between warmth and fertile soil from which plants sprouted like spiky swords, they knew they must have been nearing the Great Land of Green. The temperate climate had lulled them into a dreamy calm, one that was suddenly dispelled when they found their oars weighted and dragged by the numberless arms of a slimy green god who rode the surface of the sea like a flattened trap. They struck at the weedy deity, cutting it with their finely carved swords and poking it with their flanged spears. The god did not fight and it did not bleed; it was already dead. Our Vikings engaged in the sort of laughter that until then had been foreign to them, because they had never before felt relief, having never before felt fully challenged. Storms could be weathered, beasts could be yoked, men could be killed, but how does one fight an enemy whose powers and proclivities are unknown? After the men had exorcised their glee, they embarked on the difficult task of extricating themselves, for in circumstances like these you may find that a dead god can be as difficult as a live one. For hours our heroes remained trapped in the Sargasso Sea, inching slowly though not deliberately toward Bermuda, where the sea god would suddenly relinquish its grip, as if frightened by the fierce silence, the black water, the stale, haunted air. The oars sputtered to life then, remnants of the green god’s viney arms scattering across the strange, strange sea, for the men not so much understood as felt the dark charms swirling about and craved the moment they would again laugh the laugh of relief.

Askold stood at the prow, mouth agape as visions of spiked fish and water wenches with weedy hair danced in the air before him, as finned horses and winged snakes emerged from the depths to mock them.

“Row!” cried Tostig, and the men set to with fervor to match the gods’. Young Sigvatr forgot the fanged animal gnawing him from the inside, and Canute closed his eyes and slammed his oar into the breach while Gunnar, in his zeal for escape, snapped his oar in half. Even Ragnar, who for a moment forgot the painstaking effort he’d expended on his nails, dug his fingers into his magic oar and pulled until his arms went numb. Almost nothing happened. The vessel did not move, Askold slithered slowly into the shadows, Gunnar stared at the broken oar in his bloodied hands. Of course you’re wondering what did happen. I am loath to say it, though it does shed light on the remainder of our heroes’ journey and as such I am impelled by my commitment to complete the tale. At that moment—several seconds after Canute’s eyes had slammed shut, after Gunnar had lost his oar to the madness, after Tostig had taken command of a vessel seemingly forsaken by the gods—the mighty dragon-head on the ship’s mighty prow snapped off and tumbled to the great depths below. You would be correct in assuming that, for these men, nothing could have been worse, but you would be incorrect in assuming that they were right.

The water remained still and the wind traitorous in its absence, but the visions compensated for nature’s calm, swirling about the ship in panoramic display until all but Canute saw them: eight-armed beasts with amber eyes, armored fish with bladed hands, giant sharks with spear-like snouts. Our men put oar to sea and struck repeatedly, crying out to Odin and Vili and Ve, demanding recompense for the fortitude they had displayed on this never-ending journey. Askold peeked from inside a vat of salted fish as his men battled through visions and pain and dark, still water. Was this madness the result of disease, poison, malnutrition, or were these creatures the slippery denizens of the new world they had hoped to own? After hours of impotent rowing and slashing, it would seem our heroes had finally satisfied the nebulous demands of the gods, for the watery demons slid quietly back to the sea.

Sensing the sudden calm that had descended upon them, Askold emerged from the malodorous barrel only to behold the mighty crew’s subsequent challenge: a wall of seemingly impenetrable mist. The men turned in tandem, a movement so graceful it appeared choreographed, and saw it, the growing shroud of vapor before them. Perhaps the Great Land of Green lay just beyond it, lush and wild and expansive, or maybe death waited there, garbed in tough scales and icy cloaks, Ragnarok come to pass. Certainly they could row the longship through the slimy limbs of the dead sea god before heading back to Denmark, to Norway, to the rocky arms of Greenland, back to the women’s curses, to Askold’s accusations, to the eternal embrace of Sweyn’s burly, pig-faced daughters. No one spoke, but each man understood the choice that lay before him, and they turned to Tostig, who nodded. If you’d listened closely, you would have heard the plash of water dripping from a row of brine-streaked oars that hung, motionless, in the lowering sky, the collective sigh that rippled through the crew like a chill before, in silent complicity, each man took up his oar and rowed toward that ghostly veil that shimmered over the dark, dark sea. Askold, in the name of King Sweyn and the Great King Hoaer before him, demanded they turn back, stomped his tiny foot and pointed north. But the mighty crew of the Vinland, primed to extend their journey or to enter Valhalla trying, suspended their fabled crossing only long enough to strip Askold of his vibrant leader’s cloak and to set him roughly on a splintered raft in the Atlantic, where I found the erstwhile Viking, naked and prattling. For the promise of ten furs, a bronze battle axe and this honest recounting of the final Viking voyage, I returned him to Denmark, to an angry father, to an ugly woman, to a barren land, to a once imposing empire.

'The Final Viking Voyage' is unlike anything I’ve ever written; I seldom write comedy or historical fiction but, long before the contemporary Viking craze (“What’s in your wallet?” and the History series Vikings), I was enamored with Led Zeppelin’s 'Immigrant Song.' I often wondered what had happened on the journey Robert Plant imagined, but every time I tried to write a serious account it felt cold (no pun intended) and, well, boring. I finally allowed the Vikings I had been silencing to speak, and this is what they told me.