Eternal Flame, Eternal Shame: Gunnar the Gawky

Dreams of last night’s feast float in Gunnar’s mind. The rhythmic drums, the airy flutes and the captivating lyres resound in his ears. The mead flows and the women sway their tantalizing curves to the music. At the table, lay his prized dish, a roasted chicken with charred greens. As he reaches for the juicy drumstick, the floor slips from under him.

Gunnar, in his lucidness, slips from the overturned bucket he sits on, slamming his body on the freshly mopped storeroom floor. The chit-chit chattering of a Ratatoskr drifts from behind the shelves. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he catches a glimpse of its fluffy tail before it vanishes around the doorway.

‘‘Gunnar, there you are,” exclaims the frantic High Priestess from the entrance, “what are you doing on the floor?”

“Uh… sometimes you need to get close to ensure an even coat,” he lies. A gentle throb swells from his temple as he pulls himself to his feet, “what can I do for you High Priestess?”

“I need a favor,”

“Oh, I see,” He can’t fight the smile creasing his lips. He’s been at the temple for a few months now, and her newfound attention towards him hasn’t gone unnoticed. He’s daft to say he hasn’t considered it before. After all, if she weren’t a priestess, she could have any man in the village. To think, she chose him, of all people to break her oath for. He stares into her soft brown eyes and the plump glossy lips preparing for her next words.

“I need you to mop the chamber housing the eternal flame.” He pauses before he answers, trying to read the intent on her face. Was this some innuendo or does she really mean…? “Are you listening to me? The flame, Gunnar; the ones entrusted to us from the Gods. The fire that has burned for hundreds of years, preventing the end of the world. The whole reason why there’s a temple here in the middle of no where, you know; that flame.”

“Oh yes, the big fire in the shiny bucket on the third floor.”

“Yes, the one in the bucket,” she sighs. “Well, we’re doing a ceremony there at dawn and I need it mopped. Can you do that for me?”

“Not a problem, if you need cleaning, I’m your man!”

“Now Gunnar, this is crucial,” she squeezes the bridge of her slim nose and hands him the mop. “Don’t touch anything in the inner sanctum. Go in there, mop and leave.”

He fights the excitement bubbling through his body and takes the mop with pride. “I won’t let you down your Holiness.” Finally, Gawky Gunnar, has a chance to shine. He’ll show them he isn’t as inept as they think he is. “I’m so honored you chose me; I know Aric usually mops the sanctum, but I appreciate the chance to prove myself.”

“I didn’t choose you; Aric’s been vomiting since he returned from the feast last night. Trust me, you’re not my first choice, but everyone who ate the roasted chicken is bedridden. The elders suspect it was still raw inside.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” he frowns. “Don’t worry, I have an iron stomach, you can count on me your Holiness. You’ll be able to see your face in the polish tiles by the time I’m done with it.”

“No polish, mop and leave. I can’t have a repeat of what happened with the statue of Vidar.”

“That wasn’t my fault. I told you the Ratatoskr jumped out of nowhere. I tripped a bit, yeah, I lost my footing and hit Vidar but it wasn’t my fault.”

“Vidar has no left arm, or HEAD.” She points to the headless statue collecting dust in the corner. “Do you know how much gold it’s going to cost to fix it?” She steps back and takes a deep breath. “The Eternal Flame, that protects this world and our kingdom burns in the sanctum. It’s burned since the beginning of time and the Gods warn of destruction if it were to ever go out. You understand that, right?”

“Flame good, it goes out and bad things happen.”

“The end of the world happens! Listen, I would rather you miles from that flame. But we did a sacrifice in there this morning and someone needs to clean it. So please, just mop and get out. Don’t touch anything.”

“Aye aye your Holiness, I won’t let you down.”

The heavy door, finally gave way, leading him into the warm candlelit chamber. The polished tiles reflect the flickering flames creating a warm inviting space. Gold statues, decorated with glistening gemstones, stand against the walls. The thick marble ceremonial table stands to the left housing the sacred tools. In the center, was the Eternal Flame, housed in a polished golden basin. It burns brighter than any hearth he’s seen. Imagine, this is what keeps us from utter destruction.

“Welp, better get to work,” He slams the bucket down, spilling warm soapy water over the edge. Slapping the wet mop over the tiles, he pushes the water over the blood and mud. The swooshing and the sound of vigorous scrubbing fills the room. To his surprise, he finishes half of the chamber without incident. He pauses, admiring his work and leans against the table to rest his aching back. Glittering golden knives and hooks lay in a row over the pristine marble. As he plucks one strange, hooked knife it from the row, a familiar chit-chit sound pulls his attention away.

The Ratatoskr, reddish hairs, fluffy tail and buck tooth, squeaks from the doorway. It bounces across the wet floor leaving tiny muddy prints over the surface. Unafraid, he ignores the man and reaches the mop bucket.

“Hey, get outta here,” he makes a shooing motion with his hand, but the creature dunks his furry paws into the water. “Shoo!” Clamoring to the bucket, Gunnar’s gawky form startles the rodent from the room. After the celebratory pat on the back, he returns to his task. But the squirrel returns, weaves around his legs, “I said go!” he shouts, whacking the mop at the bucket. The intruder flees but as before, returns. “I told you to get!” Exasperated, Gunnar plucks the bucket from the floor holding it high above his head. Whatcha gonna do now.

Chit-chit and a squeak, the Ratatoskr rubs his whiskers unfazed by the development. His tail flicks and the rodent leaps from the floor landing on Gunner’s robe. It swirls around his torso, climbing his body as if he’s a tree. The tiny claws and soft tail tickle, sending an uncontrollable laugh from his lips. Sharp teeth dig into his hand, piercing his soggy wrinkled fingers. He screams, the water sloshes in the bucket; this way and that, before tipping him over. He hits the floor as a steaming hiss cuts the air.

The chamber darkens, the waxy candles flicker, casting ominous shadows across the walls. To his horror the gold basin is empty, save for the grey smoke rising from the charred logs. Maybe, he shudders, maybe it isn’t as bad as they say it is. The Ratatoskr scurries out of sight abandoning Gunnar in the puddle of water transfixed on the basin. The silence ticks by like an eternity. He holds his breath as if his stillness keeps the world intact. Finally, he exhales, convinced the world ending scenario is over, he climbs to his feet.

It starts with a tremor, so small no one would notice. Gunnar was about to dismiss it too, but then the chamber rattles. An ancient groan from the center of the earth rocks the temple. Dirt trickles from the stones, sprinkling his damp hair. Relics vibrate a morbid dance as they fly over the edge; smashing over the floor. Screams and thunder rock the corridor, springing him to action. Grabbing the mop, he races from the room and slams the door behind him. The commotion bubbles as the priestess and servants’ scatter; fleeing the crumbling building. He is about to join them when a firm hand clutches his shoulder.

“What did you do!” the High Priestess shouts.  He’s silent in the face of her anger, the rage coursing through her body is unprecedented. “Tell me!” His throat clamps tight, his heart slams against his chest and his short unordinary life passes before his eyes. His mind and limbs fail to organize, his only way of communicating the sequence of events is to mime them in an erratic fashion. “This isn’t the time for games Gunnar, the temple is collapsing.”

She pulls him to the inner sanctum, past the debris and before the gold basin. The statues lining the walls shake, the granite rocking side to side, before tumbling over. They struggle to keep upright as the ground outside erupts.

“You idiot, you doomed us all!” Tears fall from her eyes as she falls to her knees.

“Maybe we can light it again…” he stutters.

“This isn’t a common hearth Gunnar, it’s the sacred flame, you just can’t light it again.”

“Why not?”

“Because you can’t. It was a gift from the Gods.”

“You’re telling me the Gods have special fire that never accidently goes out? I’m sure there’s an idiot up there like me who accidently spills water on their fires all the time. Do you think they’ll just give up and go without fire?”

The ceiling cracks, the force knocks him to the floor. Between the dust clouds and rubble, he spies three matches. Crawling on his bruised knees, he weaves through the debris. His bleeding fingers snatch them before a statue collapses over the marble table.

“You’re an idiot, it’s not that simple.”

“Got a better idea?” His eyes meet her indignant stare but she doesn’t respond. He strikes the match against the rock, but nothing happens. Her eyebrow arches in an I-told-you-so look but her ignores her. He strikes the match again; it ignites but falling dirt smothers the flame.

“Gunnar hurry!”

“Oh, now you believe me,” he mutters striking a second match, igniting the tiny flame. “Wish me luck,” he smiles, tossing it into the basin.

Delicate grey smoke dances from the charred logs. Beneath the timbers a small flicker of orange burns. The shaking subsides as a whoosh cuts the air. The logs catch, igniting into a brilliant fire. The flames lick the air in a joyous crescendo and the temple settles. They stand still, waiting for the next earthquake but it doesn’t come. 

“It worked? I mean it worked! Who’s the idiot now!” He points at the High Priestess who sighs and climbs to her feet.

“You are,” she mutters, adjusting her robes. “And if you tell anyone about this, you’ll be the next sacrifice, got it?”

“Yes, your Holiness,” he recalls the golden hooked knife and decides he never wants to find out what it does. They survey the space, noting the broken sculptures scattered over the floor. He rolls up his sleeves and sighs, “best I get back to it if you want to have this place ready for your ceremony tonight. “He reaches for his mop, which is still somehow intact. But she smacks it from his hand.

“From this day onward, I’m banning you from this chamber! You will never set one foot in here for as long as you live. And if by some curse of fate, you have offspring, I’ll ban them too!”

Image by SommerRayn from Pixabay