Norah Fall was just a toddler when New York was attacked. The images of that day are permanent scars in the memories of every American, now familiar parts of each of us, visceral and full of pain. One minute her preschool playmates had been scrambling over the jungle gym in Central Park, peels of giggling laughter rolling out of their little mouths. Then a shadow fell across the city and all was plunged into chaos as a battalion of terrifying alien ships settled over them in the sky. The group took shelter under a picnic pavilion, cowering under the protective arms of their teachers like frightened ducklings. During the raging battle, laser shots zinged by their heads and caped crusaders fought their way through hordes of invaders. The entire experience had been surreal: terrifying yet impossible, like something out of a blockbuster movie.
When the tide of the fight had finally turned and the war was won, the band of brave heroes who had saved their planet regrouped in the park not far from where they had weathered the storm. Norah remembers how Captain America had hoisted one of her playmates up. Their teachers were cheering and crying at the same time, offering the Avengers, as they would come to be known, profuse thanks for saving them in a fight no one could yet even understand.
Yet the tall man in green – who Norah had clearly seen warring alongside the other caped heroes – was in chains, muzzled like a vicious dog and ignored as his comrades celebrated. Her young mind could not accept how such a thing could be. He was a superhero too, was he not?
The beautiful man stood haughtily, shoulders squared. He cast an arrogant gaze about his surroundings, revealing nothing but distain in his features. Until he felt the eyes of a curious child burning into him. He caught the tiny slip of a creature staring at him from across the field and for a brief moment, his eyes softened. In them, Norah saw fear. Instinctively, she snatched up a stray dandelion, roots still attached, and ran to him, breaking free of a schoolteacher’s restraining arm.
Blame her actions on the blind ignorance of childhood or say that it was the pure compassion of a little girl’s heart – that is how others dismissed it. This is certainly how her parents explained it to themselves. But those would be the lies adults tell themselves to smother an awkward reality and make the world seem rounder, more manageable. But the world is not that way, now is it? No. It is a wild garden, full of the inchoate and the inexplicable. As she ran across the plush grass towards the stranger, his raven black hair swirling frantically about his head, he seemed to be made of just that – mystery and magic and the untamed things that are life incarnate.
Norah came to an abrupt halt before him and he towered over her, expression blank. With chubby fingers she offered him the flower, blinking with wide eyes and brushing her unruly bangs from her face. He took it gingerly in a cuffed hand and looked at it in fascination. Not far behind her adults were screaming in horror and sprinted to retrieve her, closing the distance between them. He quickly pointed to a pocket, dipping down so the child could reach inside. She withdrew a small figurine carved in green stone. Her eyes lit up with joy and he held up a single, pale finger over his metal muzzle. Norah gave him a wide smile and stuffed the toy down her pants, effectively hiding it. The man in green gave her a secretive wink just as world spun topsy-turvy. Someone had grabbed her roughly and tossed her over their shoulder.
It was several weeks after the attack in New York when the man first came to visit her. He materialized right before her eyes. Without a word, he bent over to peer into her dollhouse, inspecting the miniature room where his gift statue had been carefully tucked into a bed. He then sat down cross-legged on the bedroom floor beside her.
“Hi!” she squealed. “Did you come to play with me?”
The man nodded. He appeared to blanche slightly, then his whole disposition brightened.
“Name?” he asked. His features didn’t move in tune with his voice, rather the sound seemed to carry on the very air itself as disembodied whisper into the shell of her ear.
“I’m Norah. These are my ponies,” she gestured to the plastic horses lined up on the carpet. “That’s Sam, my stuffed dog. Mommy says he’s a toy, but he can come to life when no one sees. What’s your name?
He smiled, displaying perfect white teeth. “I am Loki of Asgard.”
“Hi Loki. I don’t like your friends. They’re poopheads. Wanna play a game?”
The apparition threw back his head and laughed heartily, though not a single sound issued forth. He stilled and only then did she hear him.
“I love games, poppet. What shall we play?”
Norah leapt up and began to divvy the horses between them, explaining the family relations in her imaginary herd. She tried to pass him her favorite black stallion, but it passed through his palm.
“Are you a ghost?” Norah whispered.
“I’m a god,” he replied with a wolfish grin, raising his eyebrows roguishly.