It’s early, the lines are short. As we board the flume ride, six passengers to each miniature fiberglass longship, the operator incants her spiel: “No photography, no drinking, keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.” She lowers our lap bar, and our boat’s dragon prow bobs beneath an artificial waterfall. The two teenagers I’m sharing the back plank with have already begun making out. When the theme parks reopen here in Copenhagen, it’s officially spring. On the seat in front of us, a Syrian man with two sons films everything on his phone. I remove the urn containing my father’s ashes from inside my trench coat. He told me he used to take me here when I was a kid, although he may have been confusing me with one of his other sons. He broke many promises when hungover. We slide out of a fog blanket into a catacomb featuring a diorama of warriors in leather skullcaps, a tableau that hearkens back to an age of ancestors and heroes, while trying to avoid Völkisch undertones. They have the soul-searching expressions of men on the verge of breaking stuff. The Vikings were a people drawn to horizons, seafaring to Muscovy, Byzantium, and the Abbasid Caliphate, whereas my father, as far as I know, never voyaged south of Næstved.
He had thought for a while of having his ashes placed on a ship propelled out to sea while being set aflame with burning arrows—in his dotage, my father grew obsessed with Norse myth—but in today’s regulatory environment, bringing him here was the closest feasible compromise. “The best moment is when Fenris the giant wolf appears,” he’d told me on Zoom, his voice trembling only slightly. “It draws everyone’s attention, so nobody will be watching you. Do you remember how you used to cry when we got to the wolf?” This sounds more like something Ulf would do, although Ulf doesn’t remember coming here either. Most likely it was a lost intention of my father’s. He might have spent a day talking to strangers in a bar about planning a trip here, an imagined bout of quality time so vivid it became real for him in retrospect. Towards the end, the winter and the lockdown getting to him, my father was drinking forty ounces of vodka a day. I may not have been his favorite son, but I was the one who agreed to scatter his ashes here once, and if, the park reopened after COVID. Ulf would never violate theme park rules.
On a promontory in a mural, a sacrificial virgin digs up a henbane plant with her little finger to conjure storms. Piped-in thrash metal plays subliminally. I have a sense of being outside of time and, although no part of the ride is actually underground, of being underground. Ulf would hate this. He dislikes all things fanciful. Through aromas of stagnant liquid and hidden mechanisms, we coast down a tunnel lit by glowing curse-runes and splash into the first largish chamber. This represents Niflheim, the afterlife for those who perished of old age or illness, a region of swirling mists ruled by Loki’s emo daughter Hel. Barely visible because of the fog machine, a north-facing castle filled with serpents’ venom houses the souls of adulterers and perjurers—the realm to which my father’s spirit should technically be consigned. From here we enter the Hall of the Slain, where skulls with glowing eyes peer from a ledge. The emotional tempo of the ride is ratcheting up.
Valhalla is a fighting-and-sex-themed afterlife, an endless tavern brawl under a roof thatched with golden shields. A man chases a woman around and around on a rotating platform, not a bad summary of my father’s life. A berserker in a bear pelt juggles gory swords by a cauldron of boar meat, while Valkyries bear mead, illuminated by an LED strobe light. Revelers in the foreground sprawl on hordes of ransacked bling, quaffing funeral ale as they await the battle of Ragnarök. The elder of the Syrian boys in front of me says this reminds him of Skyrim. A glowing inscription reads, There are many men in Valhalla, yet will they seem too few when comes the wolf.
Maybe my father did bring me here? Some of this looks familiar. What he liked about drinking was the we’re-all-in-this-together feeling that sets in after a few rounds, the way everyone in a tavern seems to become co-conspirators in life’s defeats—he was most himself at such times. But when the government closed the bars, he had to drink alone, raging in solitude. The restrictions have been lifted again for now, so that everywhere can stay open till 5 a.m., but it’s too late for Dad. At least this theme park somehow avoided bankruptcy. Dad told me the happiest summer of his life was spent working here.
The Syrian boys scream as we splash down into the next chamber. This simulates the Fimbulwinter, the three summerless years slated to precede Ragnarök, when our old gods will battle the frost giants and lose. Large fans blast freezing winds and artificial snow. We see the ship Naglfar, constructed from the untrimmed fingernails of the dead, bathed in silvery light. A draugar sits on a keg of plundered brandy, staring out voraciously over the roiling waves. About any dark ride—the technical term for an indoor ride—there is something transcendent, shamanic, and my father’s request resonates with me. In this machinery he saw something sacred he couldn’t articulate. So little of Norse myth was preserved, special effects are as close as we get now to ritual. I have games on my phone that come with more lore. What we mostly understand about our forebears—barely enough to inspire a fairground attraction—comes from the junk they left behind.
Before we reach Ragnarök, our vessel slows and stalls. There’s been a glitch. I notice things I wouldn’t if we were still moving, like the discarded condoms and KN95 masks on the faux-rockface. Beside the opening to a maintenance tunnel rests a surveillance camera. The scene directly in front of me, convincing at first—a dagger sinking to the hilt beneath the rib cage of a warrior—repeats incessantly. Lightning flashes at regular intervals. “Please stay seated,” a loudspeaker voice announces. Water drips on me from above, from the horns of the giant stag Eikthymir, and I stifle a sneeze. The lovers beside me haven’t noticed we’ve stopped. The warrior’s fatal wounding recurs eternally. While the refugee boys cling to their father and whimper, I take a swig of Gammel Dansk from a flask. Emergency lights turn on, dispelling more of the enchantment, the partition separating the Fimbulwinter from Valhalla now clearly visible, and the shadow form of a maintenance worker steps briskly over another boat. An ex-girlfriend once told me, if you die during a dream, you remain stuck in the world of that dream forever. “We are performing a full system reset,” the loudspeaker voice announces. Were we to be evacuated, my filial errand would be foiled—but the lights finally go out again and we re-embark, our boat scraping the side of its channel as we judder forward. It’s hard to see for a moment as I prize the urn from inside my coat.
Wotan’s army of departed souls are abroad, translucent sprites projected on the ceiling, swerving through the jagged branches of the World Tree. I scatter Dad, a mixture of gritty ash and small bone fragments, into the surrounding streams. When such incidents are reported, custodial crews have special vacuums to extract the remains. But no one sees what I do. Our boat drops a few feet, and the Syrian boys scream. A cannon splashes the trysting couple. The Norse concept of the soul was that it was comprised of several parts, most of them departing long before death. I feel as if a talon is piercing my heart.
The younger boy shouts again at the spectacle of Wotan, raven-flanked Lord of the Gallows, god of war and poetry, who straddles his eight-legged horse. His single eye brims with wounded nobility. The Æsir in general were a cruel and alcoholic pantheon, prone to bickering, violent outbursts, unexplained departures, doomed relationships, and attempts to demonstrate their strength that went horribly awry. No other gods were ever so conscious of their own impending doom. Most of them wound up being sacrificed. I almost do cry when I see the snarling, spray-matted wolf Fenris, steam seeping from his nostrils. A spout of water rises up, and the serpent Jörmungandr lifts his head and sprays venom. Wotan flexes his war hammer, our boat rotates on a turntable, and jets of mist fire upwards as the jaws of Fenris clamp shut. A fireball is ejected, and we shoot through the pitch-blackness of another tunnel, a ceremonial blackness that lasts a few beats longer than I expect before we are pulled back out of the deafening labyrinth into the light.
Pneumatic brakes bring us to a halt, and our operator raises our lap bar saying, “Please step out of the vehicle to your left.” The younger Syrian boy is still enthralled. The older one asks his father if they can go again. At the drier machine near the ride, I try to warm myself up, disappointed at the resumption of reality. Rides of this nature reproduce life’s tawdry repetitiveness and astonishment, and may resemble the condensed life story that screens on the inside of your eyelids when you expire. In the gift shop, I buy a souvenir ring in the shape of a skull. The shop also sells bone amulets, dragon bracelets, and Little Mermaid statuettes. It’s Wednesday today, Wotan’s day. Outside, a girl waits in line for an eighteenth-century Ferris wheel, obscured from me by the branch of an alder tree. Although the forecast is for sun, a net of drizzle descends. Looking back at the Viking ride, I imagine my father’s ghost haunting it, and me bringing my own children here one day and, however many years later, their bringing me. Magpies lunge at dropped smørrebrød. People move grimly towards their next scheduled amusement. A gray mist hurtles down out of a gray sky.