I caught the bouquet at my aunt’s wedding in Copenhagen. I didn’t mean
to. It was a perfect July day, an endless Nordic day, with golden light
stretching far into the night. The wedding was in a church across the
street from the military barracks and the castle that houses the crown
jewels, just south of the four manmade lakes and just north of the
harbor; a brick church with tall arched windows and a cobblestone
courtyard that set it back from the road.
The reception was in Kongens Have, the King’s Gardens. Topiaries and
groomed gravel paths separated us from the castle and barracks. Karin
stood on the single step into the tiny carriage house that held the
catered food and glasses of champagne, and she threw those flowers over
I was only standing in the crowd of blondes because I looked like them.
Except their lashes were layered thick with mascara, their hair in
perfect tresses across their collarbones, and I was frail and unadorned.
The bouquet was a compact thing of pinks and whites, roses and Gerbera
daisies. It landed right in my reluctant palms. Her friends looked
disappointedly at me, angrily. I don’t want it, I said, but it was too
late. I handed the flowers back to Karin. She side-smiled at me. Soon,
she said, you’ll fall in love. She winked.
I was eighteen and it had been six months since my last period. Everyone
but my mom complimented my waiflike appearance. In four months more, I
would be put on forced medical leave from my first semester of college,
dropped on the top floor of a hospital a few blocks from my high school.
My mother was born in Denmark and lived there until just before she
became my mother. She moved to the States in 1984, and because she was
the kind of immigrant that white Americans love, a white northern
European immigrant, she had no trouble obtaining a permanent green card
until she finally became a dual citizen one month before the 2016
presidential election. All of her family live in Denmark, which is why,
in the summer of 2003 just after I graduated from high school in Maine,
we were all in attendance as my aunt married for the first time.
I wore a white linen dress for my high school graduation, not unlike a
wedding dress. The school I graduated from was WASPy like that—girls
in white, boys in suits. The boys got cigars after, lit them up on the
sports fields as they loosened their ties. By then my long hair was thin
and my skin was a little fuzzy. I bought the dress at the Banana
Republic outlet in Freeport with my friend Emily. It was long, grazing
my ankles, and sleeveless. Wow, Emily said, You’re so pretty. You look
so good in that dress. It was a size two, and I was aiming for zero.
My mom could see something was wrong; she saw it all summer. I could
tell because of the way she held worry in the line of her mouth and the
corners of her eyes. The way her gaze lingered on me, my arms and
shoulders, the sweep of her eyes over my body. Being the subject of the
up-and-down eye sweep feels like being consumed. Like the flesh on my
soft bones is being taken, is there for the taking. Maybe at zero, I
would be unconsumable. Or maybe I would be the most consumable.
My mom wasn’t trying to consume me, or maybe she was, for protection.
She was trying to find things she did or didn’t have to worry about.
Simultaneously looking for, and trying not to see, signs of the
nightmare she feared was coming, the one that came.
Soon, my aunt said, You’ll fall in love.
Soon, she implied, Your life will look like this. Blonde women in
dresses who won’t eat bread, trying to catch your fistful of roses, a
man in a suit with a cigar who thinks he’ll take care of you. You caught
the bouquet; that means you’re next.
In Old Norse mythology, there is a tree called Yggdrasil. Eleven rivers
flow from it. It is a sacred tree, and it is an ash. Ash trees are
currently under threat from the emerald ash borer, found for the first
time in the U.S. in Michigan in 2002. It was found in St. Paul, where my
forestry-working sister lives, in 2009; in Maine, which I still
sometimes call home, the first discovery was 2018, and as of 2020, it is
all over the state. As the climate changes due to settler capitalist
behavior, there will be fewer days cold enough to kill the beetle, and
it will continue to spread.
Yggdrasil’s branches and roots hold nine worlds. Its three roots are in
Hel, the underworld, which is described as a place of gloomy mist;
Midgard, where humans live on earth; and Jotunheim, home of the giants.
When the giants and the gods go to battle, that’s Ragnarok—the
apocalypse. Everyone knows this from the Marvel movies with one of those
Hemsworth brothers, though in my opinion the only worthwhile thing about
those films is Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie. But in pre-Christian northern
Europe, Yggdrasil is the wildlife-and-water-filled heart around which
everything else exists. Time and space are cyclical there.
European settlers on Turtle Island have a long and brutal history of
removing obstructions in rivers and earth to create smooth shipping and
logging channels, building new obstructions instead. Before Europeans
arrived, the Duwamish River in what is called Washington State, where I
live now, was a curly ribbon, lush with salmon and fertile alluvial
soil, its watershed stretching along more than 1600 miles. Settlers
flattened its edges for industrial use, shrinking its watershed to 480
miles. In 2001, the EPA declared the Lower Duwamish Waterway, the only
river in Seattle, a Superfund Site. The multi-phase cleanup process will
not even be fully underway until at least 2024. It takes vast amounts of
time and care to undo the kind of concentrated abuse that results, for
example, in a Superfund Site. The river, the earth, the beings that live
here, we may not survive.
The body of water called Merrymeeting Bay is not a bay in the way of
other bodies of water called bay. It’s a tidal freshwater bay, or
inland delta, or tidal riverine, depending on who you ask. Six rivers
flow into it: the Kennebec, Androscoggin, Cathance, Eastern,
Abagadasset, and Muddy.
I worked on a farm by Merrymeeting Bay for most of my 20s. We, the
collective organism of the Six River Farm crew, ate lunch on its shores
every spring, summer, fall day. Hollow stalks of grasses and reeds,
muddy flats, logs nudged a few inches by the tide, the creep of knotweed
at its edges. Calm water, angry water, gray water, blue. On hot days, we
jumped off the one-lane bridge after work. The water soaked into the
scrapes on our arms from zucchini vines, it dissolved the sticky yellow
residue from tomato vines, it soothed the sinewy fibers of our tendon
We sometimes challenged each other to name all six rivers, a memory
My uncle bought a house in Tisvilde, on the northern coast of Sjaelland
in Denmark, in 1993. It was an old camp, two small houses connected by a
covered patio with grapevines growing on the ceiling beams. Although it
was my uncle’s house, it became a place everyone shared, and on our
annual trips to Denmark we spent most of our time there instead of at my
grandparents’ apartment in the city. The 147 stairs down the sandy,
Rugosa-covered cliffs to the beach were not yet broken from lack of
maintenance, and we went to them early in the day, running down them
carrying towels and a small plastic cooler of Ribena elderberry juice
boxes and squares of rugbrød sandwiches. We didn’t swim so much as
splash each other, and sometimes ride the small waves that made it past
the breakwaters. Late at night, we watched the sun set in pastel pinks
and oranges from the beach, and raced each other up the stairs to watch
it disappear again from the top of the cliff.
As a child, I didn’t mind sleeping in gritty sheets, and went to bed
sandy and salty every night. Our mother pulled the yellow shades against
the dregs of the 10pm light and the yellow quilts up to our chins and
kissed us goodnight before going to watch crime dramas with the other
adults. Outside the kitchen door, tiny wild strawberries grew by the
garden wall; against the wooden fence between our small yard and the
neighbors’ grew fat gooseberries that puckered our mouths; in the
spring, the two cherry trees between which laundry lines were strung
bore the sweetest, reddest cherries I knew. This was all part of the
story we grew up inside, my great grandparents and my grandparents and
my mom, my siblings, me.
The word Tisvilde comes from Tyr’s vaelde, meaning a place dedicated
to Tyr, one of the Norse gods of war and justice. The coupling of “war”
and “justice” speaks to the Viking and European and overall imperialist
ethos of the people I come from, on both sides. Tyr’s claim to fame is
that he sacrificed his hand to the wolf Fenrir while the other gods
bound the animal. Fenrir’s threat was that he would devour the sun. In
the time before severe human-created climate change, and still now, the
sun keeps nordic people going. Winter is long, dark, wet and cold. The
sun hangs low and is walled behind a permanent gray or a damp black sky.
The abundance of light in the summer turns the days to joy, or at least
makes joy more possible. It’s not the only factor, of course, but it
goes a long way.
In the summer of 2018, there was a heatwave across Europe that was so
strong it scorched the grass and turned the chestnut and beech leaves
brown. Even Tisvilde was unbearably hot. My sister Lily and I stood in
the ocean water to save our feet from the burning sand. We submerged our
bodies in the sea for relief, but it didn’t wash away the fear. It
didn’t cleanse our grief for a future that looked like this, and worse.
Fenrir’s threat is nothing compared to the one we made ourselves.
There is a small grassy spot not far from the beach in Tisvilde called
Helenekilde, or Sankt Helene’s Spring. It’s actually a grave and not the
spring itself. Saint Helene was a Swedish girl. Like other girl saints,
the story goes, she was unmarried when she was killed and cast into the
sea, martyred. She washed up on the shore near a spring. The spring
where her body landed was used for hundreds of years as a healing place;
sick and dying people made pilgrimages there on Midsummer’s Eve and
walked away cured.
The soft moss and grass around the little stone grave marker embedded in
the earth, surrounded by a low stone wall, is maybe not magic, but a
place for thinking about what it means to be sick, what it means to be
cured. What it means to walk away, and from what. Do those of us who are
called sick, who internalize a sick identity and carry it like a scar or
a thorny rose, walk away from ourselves? What is sickness under a sick
regime? If I call myself mentally ill, if I confess to a disorder, what
am I doing to myself with those words? To what extent am I responsible,
and to what extent is the empire poisoning me and calling it my fault?
If you google Helenekilde, the first thing that comes up is the website
for Helenekilde Badehotel, which is an airy white-walled hotel on a
private stretch of beach, and one of the most elite vacation spots in
the country. High-power politicians go there both in real life and in TV
shows. In the 30 years since my uncle bought that little yellow house,
Tisvilde’s narrow main street choked with Maseratis and Jaguars and BMW
convertibles; its cafes and ice cream stands turned New Nordic; its July
days filled with the young and blonde, attending summer music festivals
and drinking on the beach. Tisvilde is now often referred to as the
Danish Riviera. What kind of illnesses would a girl saint find here?
What kind of cures?
One of my favorite stories about the norse gods is that Odin gave his
eye in order to gain more knowledge. That’s how he apparently discovered
the runes, which were not just letters but keepers of secret and
mystery. They are symbols of powerful forces in the universe. Or so the
I continue to sacrifice parts of myself for more knowledge, keep giving
parts of my body over to the mysterious letters in order to try and
understand things more deeply. Maybe we all do this in our own ways.
Obsession and sacrifice seem like pretty universal experiences. I
wouldn’t give my actual eye because to me that seems melodramatic; but I
would give my bones, my skin, my flayed heart.
The house where my parents live in Maine was built in the early 1850s.
It was the site of a mill for close to a century. The 19^th^ century
European settlers loved building things with wood. There was so much of
it, and they decided that meant it could be theirs. They floated logs
down all six rivers. They removed the obstructions. They milled logs
into boards for houses, barns, churches, freight sheds, ships. They
stacked the boards on land that other settlers had decided to build on.
Land for sale, trees for sale, water views for sale.
There are remnants of mills all over the islands and coastline. Jagged
skeletons visible at low tide, wheel spokes like ribcages in the mud.
Rotted pilings like limbs in the water.
When I was in high school and my brother Theo was in middle school, we
sometimes got along for enough time to go on exploratory hikes in the
woods near our house. We walked across the causeway, which floods more
and more now, to the edge of our neighbors’ land, a muddy lip of pines,
oaks, and ash nudging against cattails and marsh grass. There’s an old
shack there, tilted and leaning like a rhombus, but it remains standing
even now. As if it is perfectly content to live in precarity, to embody
it the way America has always asked. Its door is gone and windows
glassless, but its floorboards persist, along with the remnants of a
chair, some iron bedsprings, a bit of stovepipe. From the road it is
nearly invisible; it blends in with the brown winter leaves and rough
gray bark and swirls of brackish water that surround it.
Theo and I found our common ground in entering cold, cavernous places
with histories we wouldn’t know. The shack by the marsh, the barn next
to our house, the barn in Pennsylvania where our grandmother threw a
birthday party for everyone but herself, a goodbye party in disguise.
Rivers are sometimes seen as borders by people who like to see borders.
The border between Maine and New Hampshire, for example, is the middle
of the Piscataqua River. This river kept its Abenaki name, but the line
in the middle is imaginary. On one side of the river is Kittery, Maine,
and on the other side, Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On an island in the
middle called Seavey’s Island is the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
According to the borders, the shipyard is in Maine, even though it bears
New Hampshire’s name. All of this is meaningless as far as the land
itself is concerned, but it was nonetheless the subject of a border
dispute between the states that ended in 2001 when the U.S. Supreme
Court declared that the naval shipyard was actually in Maine. It’s
important to know who owns what; that is one of the foundational
principles of the settler state.
In World War II, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard became the site in which
four surrendered German U-Boats were stored, and their crews kept as
POWs. One of the U-Boats carried a secret stash of uranium oxide from
the German nuclear weapons program. The material was seized and given to
the Manhattan Project instead. It was in the bomb that the U.S. dropped
History is a web of tributaries and branches. I grew up not far from the
Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, and even closer to Bath Iron Works, which
during World War II launched a destroyer every 17 days. My dad’s father,
who we called the Danish word for grandfather Farfar even though he
wasn’t Danish, was in the Navy during that war, on an aircraft carrier
that also carried an atomic weapon, one that was never detonated.
Meanwhile, my great grandfather in Denmark, Jens, was working with an
underground resistance and bombing German supply trains. Whether he
killed anyone, I’ll never know. He was captured and tortured for several
days. Somehow he escaped, or was let go. When he returned to my great
grandmother, Edith, and my grandfather, who was a baby, they fled to the
countryside in Jylland. They laid low on a farm. My grandfather doesn’t
remember much from that time, and Jens never talked about it. On the
summer afternoons we spent at Jens and Edith’s house, where Edith
painted flowers on ceramics and on canvas and grew the real ones outside
in her garden, Jens smoked cigarettes and told us not to touch the
grenade he kept in the hallway. He said it was from the war but wouldn’t
answer questions about it. No one pushed him, because we saw the shadow
in his eyes and the tightness in his lips. Edith would come into the
room with a pitcher of elderflower cordial and usher us outside onto the
sunny patio. She brought plates of smørrebrød with liver paste and egg
and tomato, followed by a tin of butter cookies. I didn’t think too hard
about the grenade, or the war, or the pain they carried.
When Edith died, I got some of her art—some watercolor paintings of
pink flowers; an oval ceramic sign to hang on the door that says Er i
haven (In the garden) in her long, slanted cursive; a narrow scroll
of embroidery with landmarks from all over Denmark: famous old churches
and fields with red cows and a mound of Jelling stones and the statue of
the little mermaid. All of these things hang on my walls. Other things I
have from her: a sweet tooth, a quiet devotion to art, bones like sand.
When hers got really bad, when the osteoporosis made it so she was in
constant pain, she stopped eating. She lay still on the bed and didn’t
even look at her paintbrushes, though she might have looked out the
window at the sweet-smelling Rugosa and translucent redcurrant on the
other side of the glass. She died that way. Maybe I will too.
I should tell my Danish grandmother: my skeleton is jagged. Did you see
I should send a telepathic message to my American grandmother’s ghost:
You promised your skeleton to me, but it is ash now. I miss you.
Here’s the thing with my bones. They are like runes, and they are like
ruins. They are unreadable and look ancient. My Odin’s eye is the MRI
machine. I have been in MRI machines on all three UW hospital campuses
and one of the clinics. Sometimes, instead of an MRI, I get a bone scan,
which is quieter. For a contrast bone scan, they inject me with dye and
a few hours later I come back and watch constellations float around a
screen that is attached to the machine scanning a part of my body, a
foot or a knee. It looks like the milky way, stars against a digital
black; it’s almost calming. The other Odin’s eye is a Dexa scanner, but
that one only tells me what I already know. Osteopenia is the official
diagnosis; the river drained out of me, only sand left.
My mom married my dad in Denmark when she was twenty. In the photo from
their wedding day that sits framed on her desk, they both look young,
but she looks youngest. My dad, at 28, already had a receding hairline,
and a skinny body maintained by a steady diet of coffee, cigarettes, and
wine, every day, in that order. My mom wears a simple white dress and a
flower crown of pinks and whites resting on her dark pixie-cut hair. In
this photo, she is the fairy. Her youth spills off of her in bubbling
waves, even through the faded color of the photograph, even across
almost four decades.
The etymology of Danmark is unclear, but Dan comes from a word meaning
“flat land,” and mark probably refers to forests in the southern part
of Jylland. Mark in modern Danish means “field.” The Danes are
straightforward with their language, in meaning if not in decipherable
speech. It is the only country in the world to use the word “ghetto” to
officially denote residential areas. The definition has everything to do
with demographics: income levels and employment status, race and ethnic
background, education levels. One such neighborhood, Nørrebro, is where
I lived with a roommate during my semester abroad during undergrad.
Every time I was lucky enough to have the chance to go abroad for my
education, I went to Denmark. I went in undergrad and I went for
graduate school. I flew there like a Luna moth, my body drawn there as
if the land itself was light and heat. Luna moths are all over the
eastern part of Turtle Island, but in Europe they’re found only as
vagrants. That was me, delicate and lime green, unsure where my home
was, body built from love for places that may or may not suit me. Where
I may or may not belong.
Sjaelland translates to “soul land.” It is one of 406 islands in
Denmark. Maine has 4600. My family is from islands. Holding their names
is a memory game.
In soul land, there are no mountains. There are chalky white cliffs that
look like the moon and trees twisted by onshore winds. There are grassy
dunes, archipelagos, lakes, birch forests. Nowhere in the country are
you farther than 32 miles from the sea.
In colonized Wabanaki territory, the land shows its history of being
raked over by glaciers. The mountains are small, the granite is pink
scratches on the earth. Raised like scars, like the one on my wrist from
when it broke glass, like the ones on my grandmother’s lungs.
Glaciation deposited unconsolidated sediments across what is now called
in English the state of Maine. The retreat of glaciers created hundreds
of ponds and lakes in the land I keep calling home.
I am unconsolidated, and I am sediment. Rode here on a sheet of ice,
stayed where my cold ancestors deposited me.
Pennsylvania, June 1995. The sun is milky yellow, a calm warmth. My
cousin Kayla is in a violet dress, lace around the neckline, hair long
and smooth down her back. I’m in a dress too, with frilly short sleeves,
dark purple flowers. The side doors of the barn are open, allowing light
to flood its cold interior. I stand on the grassy slope outside the
doors, realizing I’ve never seen them open, never seen the barn like
this before. Sunshine reaching into a place that usually feels so
hidden, its secrets buried in dust.
Someone hung colorful streamers from the rafters, maybe my dad. A
garland of silver letters drapes across the entryway: HAPPY BIRTHDAY.
Round tables populate the swept-off concrete floor, paper plates and red
Solo cups and plastic utensils stacked neatly on one of the tables in
You’re it! Theo shouts as he slaps my arm and runs off into the knobby
apple trees of the small orchard. Everything around us is big and green,
tall grass, wide swaths of blackberry canes and wildflowers. Theo is
small but fast, his blue button-down already untucked.
I’m not playing! I yell after him, turning back toward Kayla in the cool
shadow of the barn. She ducks into the old stable and comes out with a
half-deflated basketball. Throws it at the netless hoop mounted on one
of the beams and misses. The ball doesn’t even bounce when it lands. She
giggles. I take her hand and say, Come on, let’s go find Farmor.
This is supposed to be a birthday party for all of the June babies: me,
my dad, my grandfather, several of my cousins. Jane, but she’s not here.
I will continue to believe the birthday party lie until I am well into
adulthood, when the truth of it will hit me like a deflated basketball
in the face.
Farmor comes out of the house carrying a tray of smoked salmon on rye
bread—my mother’s Nordic contribution, one of her favorite foods, and
mine. When Farmor sees us, she says in her scratchy voice, Sugar-dee,
sugar-doo, will you help carry the rest of the appetizers out? We do as
she asks because we love her more than anyone, even each other. Her hair
is already short; she lost her long white locks to chemo but that
already seems like ages ago to me. Now it’s a fine white pixie, but
she’s stronger than a fairy, and her eyes are bright, her smile calm.
She walks just fine and weaves at her loom every morning. I believe she
is no longer sick, that she will be with me for the rest of my life.
When she begins dying in earnest, which takes most of my sixth grade
year, my dad and I will drive back to this place, this house of joy and
pain, every single weekend. At first she just seems a little tired. But
as the cold creeps in through the rafters and the cracks under the
doors, and the house gets smaller, and her world shrinks to the size of
her room, and then to the size of her hospice bed, I will sometimes
leave the house and go to the barn. Stand in the dark gray of it, my
winter coat zipped up to my chin, my frozen fingers gripping that now
almost fully deflated basketball, dull silver light only just making the
hoop visible. I will throw the ball towards it again and again. I will
make rules, like if this one goes in, she’ll feel better today. If this
one goes in, she’ll feel better next week. If this one goes in, she
The sunshine that day of the June party was kind and generous, and I
will come to understand it as the last good day, at least for her. There
was chocolate cake with white frosting and marzipan flowers. Kayla and I
spent the whole afternoon laughing, Farmor’s hands on our heads and
shoulders, watching our brothers chase each other through the orchard.
We felt lucky, but we didn’t know how much. In two years, this memory
would feel so far away as to have existed on another plane, in another
dimension. Farmor would turn 65, and then her skeleton would be burned
In Norse mythology, the first creature to come into being was a
hermaphroditic giant called Ymir. He was created when fire and ice met
in the abyss, which was called Ginnungagap, into which Ragnarok will
supposedly send us again one day. Ymir was the chaos from which
so-called order emerged. Giants, the ancestors of gods, who were the
ancestors of humans, were spontaneously created from his legs and the
sweat of his armpits. I find this weird imagery funny, and I like it,
because I like the idea that legs and sweat and asexual reproduction is
the stuff that eventually made people. We are indeed a strange and
chaotic life form; we are giant in a lot of ways.
The word gap in Ginnungagap indicates an empty space, a void, a nothing.
Gaps are everywhere, in mountains and forests, in individual and
collective memory, between words and feeling; gaps are all over my life.
In the nothing there is only possibility. On the flip side, in pure
possibility, there is nothing.
Sarah Neilson is a writer, reader, former farmer, and a triple air sign based in the Pacific Northwest. Their work has appeared in Catapult, Shondaland, them, and The Seattle Times among other outlets. They can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote.