I sit on the subway, thinking of Wealhtheow. Whether or not Wealhtheow existed. Whether her name was a work of fiction. Hrothgar is a historical figure, as are his sons. But who was his wife? Was she Wealhtheow? Was she the peace-weaver?
The train jerks to a stop. The doors open, the off-key jingle clangs a second afterwards. Whose job is it to fix that? Is there a subway tuner who will adjust the chime to match the rest? I like to imagine him, an old man who began his career tuning pianos, and switched to subways when he found it more lucrative. There is less competition in the field of subway-tuning, it being a somewhat maligned occupation in the world of professional instrument tuners. The doors close, and immediately afterwards the warning chime sounds again, too late.
I reread the opening of Beowulf, and match the modern lines to the facing Old English transcription. I sound out the words phonically, mouthing the syllables. A pink-faced businessman across the car watches me. He sits pressed tightly against the side, as far away from me as he can get without actually standing up and changing seats. Sweat greases his forehead, and he rubs his racoonish hands together. I picture Vikings as I read, but I don’t know if that’s really who I’m reading about. I was taking a course at the university for something to do, hoping perhaps to meet people, maybe make some friends. Instead, I was introduced to Beowulf, briefly. The instructor assumed that everyone had encountered Beowulf before, and so dove right into the details, took a brisk lap of the text, then climbed out quickly to dive into the next. When the rest of the group moved on, I lingered on the epic, and stopped going to class. I was always a weak swimmer.
The subway arrives at my stop, and I stride quickly out the door and across the platform towards the stairs. An elderly couple stand on the top step, waiting out the rain. I tuck Beowulf into my shirt and start to jog homewards. It’s not far, but I wish I thought to carry an umbrella, or a jacket, or really anything that would keep the water off. I turn the corner, and dash into my building. It’s an old, depressed structure, with an ugly grey exterior and peeling paint in the hallways. The elevator license has been expired for about a year. As far as I know, few people use the elevator anymore, both because of the horrible clunking sound it makes and the way it doesn’t really line up with the floors when it stops. The stairs, at least, are level. And I’ve never known them to lurch the way the elevator does.
The building is only six stories high. I live on the fifth floor. The climb’s not too bad, but I’m out of breath by the time I reach the top. Fortunately, my door is the first one on the left. I dig into my pocket for my key and let myself in, and carefully pull Beowulf out of my shirt. I examine the book. It’s not too wet. I set it down on a table, and go to find a heavy textbook that should do the trick. Gently, I smooth Beowulf flat and place my ninth grade history textbook on top. I probably should have turned the book back in to the school at some point, but no one ever asked for it. Besides, I like history.