I am a woodcutter. My name does not matter. The hut where I was born and where I shall probably soon die stands at the edge of the forest.
It is said of the forest that it stretches as far as the sea, which rings the whole earth and on which wooden huts like mine wend their way. Never having seen this sea, I don’t know. Nor have I ever seen the other side of the forest. When we were boys my elder brother made me vow that between us we would chop down the entire woods until not a single tree was left. My brother died, and what I seek now - and what I shall go on seeking - is something else. To the west runs a stream that I know how to fish with my hands. In the forest there are wolves, but wolves do not scare me, and my axe has never been untrue to me.
Of my years I have never kept count. I know they are many. My eyes no longer see. In the village, where I venture no more, since I would lose my way, I am known as a miser. But how much treasure can a mere woodcutter have laid up?
To keep snow out, I shut tight the door of my house with a stone. One evening long ago, I heard laboured foot steps approach, and then a knock. I opened, and a stranger came in. He was old and tall, and he was wrapped in a threadbare blanket. A scar marked his face. His years seemed to have given him more authority than frailty, but I noticed that he was unable to get about without the aid of a staff. We exchanged a few words that I no longer remember. At the end, he said, ’I am homeless and sleep wherever I can. I have travelled the length and breadth of this land of the Saxons.
These words testified to his years. My father had always spoken of the Saxon land, which nowadays people call England.
I had bread and fish. We did not speak a word during the meal. Rain began to fall. With a few skins I made him a pallet on the earth floor, where my brother had died.
When night fell, we went to sleep.
Day was dawning when we left the hut. The rain had stopped and the ground was covered with new-fallen snow. My companion’s staff slipped from his hand and he ordered me to pick it up.
‘Why must I obey you?’ I asked him.
‘Because I am a king,’ he answered.
I thought him mad. Picking up the staff, I handed it to him. He spoke with a different voice.
‘I am king of the Secgens,’ he said. ‘Often in hard pitched battle I carried my people to victory, but at the fateful hour I lost my kingdom. My name is Isern and I am of the race of Odin.’
‘I do not worship Odin,’ I said. ‘I worship Christ.’ He went on as if he had not heard me. ‘I travel the paths of exile, but I am still king, for I have the disk. Do you want to see it?’ He opened the palm of his bony hand. There was no thing in it. Only then did I recall that he had always kept the hand closed.
Staring hard at me, he said, ‘You may touch it.’ With a certain misgiving, I touched my fingertips to his palm. I felt something cold, and saw a glitter. The hand closed abruptly. I said nothing. The man went on patiently, as if speaking to a child. ‘It is Odin’s disk,’ he said, ‘It has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side. As long as the disk remains mine, I shall be king.’
‘Is it golden?’ I said.
‘I don’t know. It is Odin’s disk and it has only one side.’
Then and there I was overcome with greed to own the disk. If it were mine, I could trade it for an ingot of gold and I would be a king. I said to the vagabond, whom to this day I go on hating, ‘In my hut I have buried a box of coins. They are of gold and they shine like an axe. If you give me Odin’s disk, I’ll trade you the box.’
He said stubbornly, ‘I don’t want to.’
“Then,’ I said, ‘you may continue on your path.’
He turned his back to me. One blow with the axe at the back of his neck was more than enough to bring him down, but as he fell his hand opened, and in the air I saw the glitter. I took care to mark the spot with my axe, and dragged the dead man to the stream, which was running high. There I threw him in.
Coming back to my hut, I searched for the disk. I did not find it. That was years ago, and I am searching still.
This story originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine, 21 June 1976.