In the 1600s, a group of Icelandic traders made the voyage across the Atlantic and landed on the eastern shore of North America. Heading west, they eventually settled in Indiana along the White River near a trade route used for transporting dried fish north and beaver pelts south. A peaceful people, the Icelanders befriended the native Miami tribe, intermarried, and formed a new society that maintained aspects of both cultures. The blended tribe prospered and grew.
Nearly 50 years later, a girl named Meri was born, a beauty with the finest qualities of her Miami and Icelandic ancestors. The people of her tribe said she was special, destined for greatness. Her black hair had a luster that seemed to glow even in the darkest night, and her milky white skin accentuated the glow. The way her lithe body moved when she walked made her appear to be floating. She also had a brave soul, fiercely defending her tribesmates even at the risk of her own life. When she was just five years old, a wolf stole into one of the huts of a family that had recently given birth to a baby boy. She followed the wolf to the baby’s bed, seized the beast by its neck, grabbed a nearby rock, and pummeled the wolf until it ran away. Then, covered in the wolf’s blood, she kissed the still-sleeping babe and awoke his father.
Such were the stories that surrounded Meri as she grew, stories of both kindness and strength that led many to believe that she would be the first woman to become chief. And, indeed, two decades later she did become chief—with surprisingly few naysayers. Even the previous chief whispered, “Choose Meri,” as he breathed his last.
A few years into her leadership, trade began to slow. Envoys were sent to the tribes south and north to determine the cause. It wasn’t warring tribes or trade disputes or even the encroachment of the white man; instead, it simply seemed that there wasn’t as much fish in the south or fur in the north as there once had been.
Meri believed that her tribe’s gods and manitous, the spirit beings all around them, had turned their back on them because of their greed. It was true that their tribe had flourished more than most due to their excellent positioning along the north/south trade route. Perhaps they had not been properly thankful for the blessings bestowed upon them? So, Meri ordered the tribe’s shaman to thank the manitous, even the lesser-known spirits that were often overlooked, and to hold ceremonies to honor the gods of their ancient Icelandic forbears—Odin, Thor, Freyja, and Freyr.
For a time, the trade did improve. The tribe even bestowed gifts upon Meri for her wisdom. But then trade came to a sudden, crashing halt. Tribes from the north described a devastating series of snowstorms that had come earlier than anyone could remember while tribes from the south spoke of hurricanes that had destroyed seaside villages. As her tribesmates begin to die of hunger and disease, Meri became more and more desperate.
One day, the shaman approached Meri uneasily. He was hesitant at first, but finally told her about one power they had yet to tap: Loki. This god of mischief, the shaman explained, was an ancient deity of the Icelandic people, a powerful being that few dared call upon because of his unpredictability.
“But all else has failed,” the shaman whispered. “Perhaps it is time to try Loki.”
“But you say he is a trickster,” Meri said, shaking her head. “How could we trust him?”
“There are many accounts of Loki,” the shaman explained, “and not all of them are evil. He even fought alongside Odin on some occasions.”
“Are you saying he was just misunderstood?” Meri asked.
“You must remember, our ancient texts were written by mortal men—men with their own flaws and biases. Perhaps there are mistakes or embellishments sprinkled in with the truth.”
Meri looked into the faces of her starving tribesmates, the fear and pain inspiring boldness. “I’m willing to try anything,” she said at last. “Our people need help. If Loki can provide that help, so be it. How do we do this?”
“I’ll consult the texts,” the shaman said. “In the meantime, get some rest. You’ll need your strength.”
That night Meri settled down to sleep, but sleep came in fitful spurts. Each time she closed her eyes she felt the shadows closing in around her, filling her with dread. Flashes of light, a lone wolf howl, and the gnashing of teeth woke Meri every time she started to doze. By morning, she realized that trying to sleep was pointless. She went to find the shaman.
“Good morning, Meri,” he said. “I found an interesting passage in one of the old texts.” He pulled a book from his lap and placed it in front of Meri. “It’s the story of a young man who actually spoke with Loki. He burned an incense made of sage combined with a lock of his own hair and the fur from the tail of a male wolf.”
“Some of our hunters killed a wolf a few nights ago,” Meri said. “I’ll see if I can track it down.”
“When you have the fur,” the shaman said, “meet me in the old wood. We’ll do what needs to be done.”
“Agreed,” Meri said. She grinned. “And I’ll be sure to bring my hair with me, too.”
That evening, in the forest outside the village, Meri found the shaman near a large fire. He combined the wolf fur and Meri’s hair with the sage and tossed them into the fire. A sudden, violent wind swept through the glade, putting out the fire and plunging them into utter darkness. A chorus of wolves howled and barked nearby. Then, as quickly as it had started, the wind ceased and the fire flared to life again.
“Enjoy the theatrics?” a voice from the edge of the woods asked. “That’s what you expect from the great gods, isn’t it?” A tall, lanky figure with small beady eyes and disheveled, black hair strode from out of the shadows.
“Who are you?” Meri asked.
The stranger cocked his head, surprised by the question. “I’m Loki,” he said. “Weren’t you looking for me? By the way, the wolf fur and lock of hair and all that aren’t really necessary. I knew you were looking for me. I just wanted to see you go through your fancy ritual. It was quite entertaining.”
“I’m glad it pleased you,” Meri said through gritted teeth. “We perform such rituals for you.”
“Oh, not for me!” Loki said. “Maybe for great-and-powerful Odin or clod-headed Thor, but I’m strictly small time. I don’t require such pomp and circumstance.”
“My people need help,” Meri spat, getting straight to the point. “We can’t survive much longer the way things are going.”
“So bountiful harvests and profitable trade is what you desire? That’ll cost you. Let’s say … five hundred sheep sacrifices.”
“We don’t have five hundred sheep,” Meri said.
“That’s OK,” Loki said with a smirk. “I don’t accept dead animals, anyway. Too messy. But I’m sure you and I can work something out. You see, the reason your requests aren’t being answered by Odin or his cronies is because he has plans for your people—plans that don’t include survival.”
Loki shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t like strong women. Whatever the reason, I’ll help your tribe just to see his silly little plans ruined.”
“I’m not sure I want to anger Odin and make things even worse …”
“Suit yourself,” Loki said with a flip of his hair. “But you must understand something. You people aren’t under the control of us gods. In fact, we aren’t even really gods, just children with special powers playing god.”
Meri raised one eyebrow. “And what are you, then?”
“Oh, I’m the one who snickers in the shadows after the spotlight is gone.”
“What do you want from me in return for your help?”
Loki grinned. “Nothing yet. But I have plans. I always have plans.”
The shaman grabbed Meri’s arm. “I don’t like this,” he hissed. “There must be a better way.”
“I can see none,” Meri said. “And it’s too late for regrets now.” She turned back to Loki. “I accept your help and pledge to help you thwart Odin’s plans. How do we begin?”
“We already have,” Loki said. “I started before we even began talking because I knew I was your only option and that you’d do anything to help your people.”
“You think you know me so well, do you?”
“I’ve been watching you for quite some time,” Loki said. “And I’ll see you again soon.” Then he was gone.
That spring, trade resumed with surprising abundance. From the south there was every kind of sea creature known to Meri’s people—and even new ones they’d never seen before. From the north there were multicolored pelts both large and small, thick and soft that filled the traders’ stalls every day. Never before had their harvests been so large nor their trade been so busy.
But as spring turned to summer, Meri began having dark dreams again. One night she decided to go for a walk through the forest to calm her nerves. After a while she noticed large paw prints in the soft ground and heard a low panting sound. Suddenly, a wolf emerged from behind a bush, its head covered in matted blood with one eye bleeding profusely. It was the same wolf that she had fought when she was a child. But there was something else familiar about the wolf, a certain arrogant look in its eye.
“You must hurry, Meri,” the beast said with Loki’s voice. “There’s not much time. Odin has discovered my involvement in your tribe’s success. Even now he is planning your immediate destruction—and mine.”
“What did you do to anger him?”
“Nothing but save your tribe.”
“Why do you look like the wolf I fought years ago?”
“Odin has imprisoned my godly form, but I can still assume certain shapes here on Earth.”
“So you were the wolf I fought? You attacked a baby in my village!”
“Did I actually attack the child? Or did you prevent me from attacking it? It was a test, you see. I suspected you were powerful, but I had to know for sure.”
“Powerful how? I’m just a human.”
The wolf grinned. “Wrong. The unexpected blending of your two tribes’ blood caused a new, young god to be born. You.”
“I often do,” Loki said, “but not this time. After he discovered your existence, Odin ordered the destruction of you and your tribe before you could pose a threat to him. I protected you so you could help me.”
“Help you how?”
“Help me shed Odin’s yoke once and for all. But this is not the ending I had envisioned.”
Meri dropped onto a fallen log, her head in her hands. “Are we all doomed, then?”
The wolf approached, pressing his cold nose against her. “Not necessarily. There is one last chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can still save your tribe—and me. But it will require a sacrifice.”
The wolf let out a sad whine. “Yes. Your blood has power, untamed godly power. It can protect and hide your people from Odin.”
“What must I do?”
“The head of every household must put a knife through your heart and use the blood from their knife to mark all of their family members.”
Meri gasped, wide-eyed. She couldn’t fathom such a horrible death, much less one carried out by her own people.
“I’m sorry,” Loki whispered.
“No, you’re not,” Meri spat. “You’ll be snickering in the shadows when the spotlight is gone.”
“This wasn’t my plan …” Loki said.
Meri stood, trying not to think about what she had to do. “Anything else?”
“Yes. The sacrifice needs to be done at a place of power—and I think I know just the spot. Your trade route runs north/south and is well used by many people, which should provide the latent power we need.”
“Fine,” Meri said. “If what you say is true, then we need to get started. We’ll need to explain as much of this as we can to the shaman.”
The shaman and her other tribesmates were astonished by Meri’s story, but the giant wolf at her side helped convince most of them. Some of them refused to believe, but then a low moan began to echo through the forest followed by a foul-smelling wind.
“Odin is coming,” Loki told them.
Astonished eyes turned toward the talking wolf.
“Please,” Meri begged her tribesmates, “do this for me so that you will survive. It must be so, and it must be done now.”
As one, the tribe carried Meri on their shoulders to the center of the north/south road. On the way, each tribe member touched Meri and thanked her for what she was about to do. Meri tried to think of what needed to be done and not what was about to happen.
After all of her people—plus the wolf, of course—had been anointed by her blood, the violent winds suddenly stopped and an eerie calm settled over the tribe.
“Meri’s sacrifice has saved us all,” the shaman decreed. “From this day forward let us always give her our praise. And because this was the road that Meri died on, it shall hold special significance in our hearts and be a place of remembrance and strength.”
The villagers bowed their heads and murmured praise to their Meri.
From that day on, the north/south trade route became known as the road that “Meri died on.”
As time passed, the village grew into a city called Indianapolis. And still the north/south route held special significance, cutting through the heart of the city. Most newcomers believed that the name “Meridian Street” was straightforward and self-explanatory; but those who knew the legend of Meri understood the true origin of the name and continued to thank the brave chief for her sacrifice.
Jason de Koff is an Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Soil Sciences at Tennessee State University. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two daughters, Tegan and Maizie.