Freya of Asgard, keeper of the world’s hearth, companion of Thor and Loki and all the gods of the cold North, woke to find a stranger peering down at her.
“Are you an angel?” she asked the indistinct face.
“What do you mean by that word?”
“Winged maidens,” she said. “Clothed in white, helmed, riding white horses onto the battlefield—” She stopped, confused. “Wait. That’s not angels.” She’d described the Valkyrie, who carry the fallen to Valhalla. “What’s an angel?”
Freya blinked the world into focus. The stranger’s lips rose around the stem of his pipe. Her eyes followed the corners of his mouth up his hairy cheeks to his avid brown eyes.
“Don’t be troubled,” he said. “Go back to sleep. You should rest, Mary.”
“My name’s Freya. I was crossing Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge. I was on my way to Midgard. There were a lot of mortals there, laughing and dancing. It was Solstice. They were calling to me and...now I’m here.”
The man nodded, took the pipe from his mouth and put it on the table at his elbow. He smoothed his short, gray-streaked hair over his forehead. “How do you feel?”
“I have a headache.”
The stranger leaned across her and produced a glass of water from the nightstand beside the bed. The snow of Vanaheim swirled for a moment in her mind’s eye. When she looked down, a tiny white pill rested in the palm of her hand.
“That will help you sleep, Mary. You’re going to be just fine.”
She put the tablet on her tongue and swallowed.
The next day Freya felt well enough to get out of bed, but her body felt strange. It looked strange too. It was the middle of winter yet her skin held a rich brown tone. The slender arms, the long fingers seemed to belong to someone else.
A thin, lemon-colored curtain divided her room from an airy common area. A dozen tables of pale ash wood filled the space. Matching chairs nestled close. What was it about ash? Ah, yes. Odin, tied to his tree. Odin One-Eye, and the empty socket was a void that held the stars. A crown of thorns? No, that was someone else, at the edge of memory.
No one appeared to be about. Freya’s knees shook every step of the way, but she made it from her bed to a chair and sat down. She pressed her forehead to the table until the spinning stopped. When she looked up again, the man from the day before sat opposite. He wore a suit made of wool tweed and a thin white coat over that, buttoned snug against his cravat.
“Feeling better?” he asked.
“What is this place? What happened to me?” Images flashed through her mind’s eye, images of home. A cat sitting before a crude hearth. A basket of apples beneath a tree. A man waving a mighty hammer. Thor, it was Thor. She remembered how his muscles had bulged the seams of the lady’s gown he wore, the trick he’d played on Fafner and Fasolt when the giants had demanded a bride. She laughed out loud.
The man still sat opposite. He studied Freya closely.
“Do you remember something, Mary?”
“No,” she lied. “But my name’s not Mary. I know that much. How did I get here? Was there an accident?”
The man smiled and began packing his meerschaum pipe with tobacco. “Some people might call it that. A random progression of events. Nothing more than the whim of history. An accident, if you like.”
“But others, Mary. Others would say there’s nothing random or accidental about it at all. Others would say, the will of God.”
“Who are you? What’s your name?”
“My name is Freud, Dr. Sigmund Freud. You may call me Herr Doctor, if you like.” He gestured with his pipe. “I have charge of this facility.”
Freya looked around. As she watched, the air shimmered and several people stepped from emptiness into the room with her. They moved purposefully about the space, tidying up, pulling aside curtains, opening a channel for the cheerful sunlight. They were dressed in white, with caps covering their hair. One of them approached with a dish and set it down in front of her.
“Do they alarm you?” the doctor asked.
“I’m used to servants,” Freya said and eyed the heaping plate. “What’s this?”
“Breakfast. You must be hungry.”
Freya was indeed famished. But the food looked strange. She picked up a little green log and sniffed it. “What in Hel is this?”
“Hell?” the doctor asked, perking up. “What do you know about that, Mary?”
“I know this shouldn’t pass as food,” Freya said. “What is it?”
“Dolmas. Grape leaves stuffed with seasoned rice. I thought you’d appreciate a meal from your native land.”
“My native land? Nothing like this is served at board in Vanaheim.”
“But Mary. You’re not from Vanaheim.”
“What meat is this?”
Freya slammed her palms to the tabletop to keep from falling out of her chair. The image came quick and hard: snow-covered branches streaming overhead as she steered along a frozen trail; the clank of bells; the clip-clop of hooves as her rams bore her along in her little cart. All the gods of the North traveled in chariots drawn by rams.
“My rams. I miss my rams.”
“That’s not surprising, Mary. Your son’s a shepherd.”
“Why lie to me? What purpose does it serve?” The doctor made no answer. “What else is there to eat? Is there roast boar?”
“You don’t eat pork, remember? You consider it unclean.”
Freya said nothing. She recalled her life clearly now, the feasts of Valhalla, the fresh game sizzling on spits. She shoved the plate away. It clattered against a glass of something a livid orange. “I want cider. Don’t you people have an orchard?”
“I’m afraid not,” the doctor said. “A single apple can have grave consequences, you know.” A smile twitched across his lips.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing, nothing at all.”
“You’re laughing at me.”
“No, no, never mind. Why not try the orange juice.”
“I’m not drinking that.”
Dr. Freud slid the glass closer. “It might help you to remember. Try it, Mary.”
Freya rose to her feet. “My name is not Mary.”
“Sit down.” The doctor blinked up at her. “You’ve nothing to be upset about.” He picked up the glass and offered it to her. “I only want to help you, Mary.”
Freya picked up her plate and threw it at him.
Hands caught her and carried her back to bed. Dr. Freud calmly brushed lentils from his cheeks. Then the yellow curtain swished closed and hands pinched and pressed and caught her head, which she’d been jerking back and forth on the pillow like a lunatic. Canny fingers unhinged her jaw, the pill pressed her tongue and she swallowed. The fingers holding her nose let go. Her arms and legs went numb. She fell through her skull onto the soft curve of the earth, and pressed her fingers into the soil. Tears streamed from her eyes, like rain purling from leaves: not fair!
“Good morning, Mary. Would you like to come to breakfast?”
Freya sat down in front of her plate. The food was no better today. A kind of unleavened bread with seeds pressed into it, lentils again, some kind of paste made out of chickpeas. The glass of orange juice stood waiting for her, an insult or an invitation. Freya stared at it, considering.
“It’s very fresh.”
Freya took a tentative sip. Dr. Freud smiled at her.
After breakfast Freya was left to wander about on her own. Dr. Freud’s facility was a vast, sterile square. Her “room” had been created by curtaining off one corner of this square. Two walls were made entirely of windows. Beyond the windows lay a manicured garden, hemmed by a tall, wrought iron fence. What she could see of the garden looked pleasant enough, with closely pruned trees and flowering bushes, a meandering path and a pool. But even from the window Freya could see to the pool’s bottom, and the path didn’t appear to lead anywhere. It was what lay beyond the garden that interested her.
“Herr Doctor,” she said, coming upon him as he sat working behind a desk at the edge of the commons. “I want to walk in that forest there.”
The doctor pinched his brows together. “Do you think that’s wise, Mary—”
“You’d only lose yourself. You’re not ready to walk even in the garden on your own.”
“What’s out there?”
Dr. Freud considered the question. “Earth,” he answered finally. “The mortal realm.”
“Midgard?” If so, Freya could find Bifrost and make her way home. Understanding dawned. “I know where I am. This is the rim of the Serpent, the one that girdles Middle Earth.” No wonder everything felt so strange. “I’m standing on Jormungandr’s spine.”
The doctor frowned. “That’s hardly the case. This place isn’t part of anything you know. It’s entirely separate from all the Great Myths. It sprang into being to arbitrate between them.” He shook his head. “But you needn’t concern yourself with that. Perhaps we can make a bargain. I have some exercises I’d like you to do. Think of them as games. Play these games with me, and I promise I’ll consider letting you walk in the garden.”
The doctor rummaged around in his desk and produced a file folder. Crinkled papers poked untidily from its edges. Photographs. Or magazine cut-outs. He brought them to one of the tables and nodded for Freya to take a seat.
“What does this remind you of?” he asked. He slid one of the pages toward her with a little flick of his wrist so that she was looking at it right-side up. It was a glossy image of a man on a throne with a long white beard, thick as clouds. His pale robe was blowing in some sort of celestial wind, because the throne was suspended in space. Stars were shining behind him. He was scowling at Freya as if she was about to do something reprehensible.
She stared at it a long while. “It’s not quite right, is it? His hair’s too fluffy. And there’s no eye patch. There should be a crow on each shoulder, whispering into his ears. Hindsight and Forethought he calls them.” She laughed. “And a book. He needs a book of poetry on his lap. If Odin’s just sitting around, he’s reading. And a cup of mead.”
The doctor shook his head. “That isn’t Odin.” He slid another picture in front of her. “What about this one?”
A mild looking fellow carried a lamb in the crook of his arm. A smile played about his lips. A crown of sunlight framed the brown hair on his head.
“Sorry,” she said, even though she wasn’t.
The same man, emaciated, nailed to a cross. Freya shrieked and shot to her feet. “Why do that to me? What’s wrong with you people?”
“Does it disturb you, Mary? Why? It’s not a nice image, of course.”
But it wasn’t the stark ribs, the wounds, the blood running down his face from the crown of thorns. It was the fact that she had come close, dangerously close, to whatever Dr. Freud was trying to get her to admit, whatever it was he wanted her to remember. The man in the picture was at the heart of it all.
Freya grabbed the first thing at hand—her chair—and threw it across the room. It landed against another table with a satisfying crash.
“Stop it! Go away!” She gulped in a huge breath. “STOP IT STOP IT STOP—” And then it was all over. Another struggle, another pill, another tear-filled sleep.
Another painfully bright morning. There was orange juice waiting for her. Freya drank two glasses of it before she even looked at the doctor.
“I’m sorry you were upset yesterday, Mary.”
“Would you like to take a walk outdoors?” Freya dropped her fork and sat up straight. “Not in the wood beyond, Mary. But in the garden. Would you like that?”
The garden was better than nothing. Perhaps she could escape. The Rainbow Bridge was out there somewhere. “Yes,” she said.
“I’m glad. There’s someone I want to introduce you to.”
Freya’s stomach clenched. “Not him. Not the man, you know, the one in the picture.”
“No, no. I realize we’ve been taking things a little too quickly.”
Freya let him lead her to the glass doors and through them. The sun shone bright and hot. It felt wonderful. It made her think of home, of…Galilee, the dry heat…but no. Asgard was wet and cold.
Pea gravel crunched beneath her slippers. Up ahead a narrow-shouldered man sat on a little bench beside the pool. He stood up and smiled at Freya as she approached.
“Allow me to introduce to you my esteemed colleague,” Dr. Freud said. “Mary, this is Dr. Jung.”
“Titles can be so burdensome,” the newcomer said. He stepped around Dr. Freud and held out his hand. “Call me Carl, I insist.” Freya let him crush her fingers. His blue eyes twinkled with mischief. “Shall we take a walk, Freya?”
“Oh!” Freya said.
Dr. Freud frowned and took a step forward. The newcomer said, “Now Sigmund. You agreed to let me try it my way.”
Freya wound her arm through Dr. Jung’s. They left the older man standing there, patting his pockets for his pipe.
“Carl,” Freya said when they had walked a few paces without speaking. “What is this place? Why am I here?”
“This place?” Dr. Jung looked around at the flowers, the butterflies, the green grass. “I don’t really know. A place people like you go when they’re sick, I suppose. When they get knocked out of themselves.”
“People like me. Immortals.”
“And you and Dr. Freud. Are you immortals as well?”
Dr. Jung barked out a laugh. “Oh, no, my dear. We’re nothing so privileged.” His grin faded and he grew thoughtful. “But in a way, Freya. In a way, we are perhaps a bit like you. But never mind, my dear. You must consider us your servants, Dr. Freud and I. We’re here to help you, after all.” Dr. Jung smiled at her. “Would you like to do something fun?”
Of course Freya did.
“Come over here. Do as I do.” Freya followed his lead and sat cross-legged on the cropped grass. Dr. Jung scooted closer so that their knees were touching. “It’s called astral projection. Or meditation. Or is it channeling?” Freya laughed at Dr. Jung’s puckered face. “Well, I don’t know what it’s called. Give me your hands, my dear. Now close your eyes. Eyes closed? Good. Now. Concentrate on your name.”
Very well. Freya.
Nothing. Just the two of them, sitting in the sunshine. The top of Freya’s head began to grow hot. And then she felt it, just a pin-prick, someone clearly thinking of her, a warm feeling, but fleeting. It was gone again.
“Did you feel something, my dear?”
“It was lovely, like sitting in front of a fire and hearing a story. A story about me. But I lost it.”
“Perhaps you would consider concentrating on the other name,” Dr. Jung suggested. “If you would like to experience more of that sensation.”
“You’re trying to trick me,” Freya said but she didn’t open her eyes. She still felt echoes of that mysterious warmth, and she did want more. “You’re just like Dr. Freud.”
“Sigmund and I have our differences, I assure you. But really. What harm can it do? It’s just a name, after all.”
“I suppose.” Freya sat and opened up her mind to the word. Mary. Mary.
Adoration hit her like a tidal wave. Drenched her with joy, battered her with a huge radiance. She made a noise of some kind, somewhere between a gasp and a laugh and a shout and Dr. Jung said, “That’s it!”
It was electrifying, and Freya was a battery. Energy streamed into her from a multitude of lives, her name on all those lips, in all those hearts. A billion souls filled her. She started to shudder like a jackhammer. Scenes flashed through Freya’s mind: a light falling from the window across her belly; a swaddled infant lying in the straw of a manger; a young man flailing a whip at Temple—
“Carl! Make it stop! How do I make it stop?”
Dr. Jung let go of her hands but the sensations kept coming. Freya leaped up and did a little dance in a circle. “What is it? I’m about to explode!”
The doctor laughed and rose spryly to his feet. “Don’t worry, my dear, you won’t fly apart.” He took a firm grasp of Freya’s shoulders and held her in place. “Quite the opposite, in fact. That’s what’s keeping you together.”
“But what is it?”
“Belief. The thoughts, the projections of your believers.”
Freya stepped away from him. She had stopped trembling as hard and was starting to feel a little queasy. “My believers. What is it they believe in?”
“But my name is—well, I forget what it is. But it isn’t Mary. It’s…uh.”
“It’s easy to forget, isn’t it? I can help remind you. Is Innana the name you’re thinking of? Or Ishtar in the Akkadian, if that helps. Do you remember the lions they put on your famous gate, the people of Sumer?”
“Or is it Isis? Does that ring a bell? Sitting in the shade of the pyramids with little bird-faced Horus on your lap? The original Madonna and child.” Freya could only stand there staring. “Hestia, maybe? The virgin tending your flame? Or Vesta, if you prefer Latin over Greek. Come to think of it, you could just as easily have woken up with the name Frigga. That one belongs to you too. Or it did. But that’s all gone now, Mary. No one worships those names anymore. Ancient history.”
“Stop.” She clapped her hands over her ears. “My name is Freya. That’s what it is. Freya.” She took off running. Dr. Jung was no friend of hers. If she could reach the garden gates, she knew she could get over them. She began to sob as she ran. It was all so confusing. Who was she supposed to be? What was she doing here? She reached the fence and collapsed against it, slid to the ground. The doctor arrived and sat down next to her. Freya let him pat her arm while she cried.
“I know,” Dr. Jung said soothingly. “I know exactly what it is you’re experiencing. I’ve treated many patients with the same complex. Don’t worry, my dear. It will all work itself out in the end.” Dr. Jung led her along the path by the hand, over the threshold of the glass doors and back to the commons. Freya went straight to her curtained alcove and climbed into bed. She pulled the covers over her head and after a little while she went to sleep.
The murmur of voices woke her. It was late, dark behind the glass walls. The moon was on the wane and that made Freya think of the parties at Solstice, the dancing, the food. Let these believers think what they pleased. Freya knew who she was. She would find her way home.
The voices she’d been ignoring rose in pitch. Dr. Freud’s voice, sharp with annoyance.
Freya slipped out of bed and crawled between the tables in the dark. Dr. Freud sat at his desk and Dr. Jung sat on top of it. Freya could tell by the older man’s stiff shoulders that this annoyed him immensely.
“…insist all you like about the non-existence of the collective unconscious,” Dr. Jung was saying. “Your approach to Mary’s treatment is still wrong.”
“And I suppose you know what the trouble is?”
“I know it intimately. It’s these Neopagans. These so called Wiccans, these Asatru, trying to revive fragments of a dream. Trying to resuscitate an abandoned history.”
“What do you mean? Asatru?”
“Sigmund, have you any idea at all what’s going on out there? Out beyond your gate? On one side it’s business as usual. People go to church. They pray. They can’t imagine anything different from what they know to be true.”
“But on the other side, there’s Asatru. Call it a cult if you like, but you could also call it a return. People are resurrecting the gods of their ancestors. Odin, the god of poetry and prophecy, who hung for three days on an ash tree and lost an eye, in exchange for inner sight. And Thor, god of battles. And Freya, keeper of the hearth.”
“You’ve never heard of Wiccans? They’ve been busy, my friend, while you’ve been neck deep in research. Recovering lost rituals, making spells, flying through the night on the equivalent of spiritual broomsticks. For some time now. That’s what’s happening out there, out in the world beyond. There’s a struggle going on, Sigmund. Against the dominant paradigm.”
“And according to you they’re winning?” Dr. Freud demanded. “The belief of this aberrant minority is so strong it, what, jolted some kind of recognition out of her, out of Mary?”
“Exactly. It’s Solstice, Sigmund. The Freya cult is particularly active at the moment.”
Dr. Freud waved a dismissive hand.
“And your theory?” Dr. Jung said.
“It’s repressed memories, of course. Coming to the fore after some traumatic—”
“Mary doesn’t need therapy. Sigmund, just let her go. Let her go and find herself. Or rather, let the faithful find her. Just open the gates.”
“Ridiculous.” Dr. Freud shot to his feet. “She’d be back here in no time. I’m surprised at you, Carl. After our past successes, I thought—”
“Eve? You’re speaking of Eve?” Dr. Jung said. “It wasn’t therapy that cured Eve, Sigmund. It was me, sitting out in the sun with her, keeping her ears tuned.”
“Absurd. You should reacquaint yourself with the file. I have it right here.” He slapped the desk top. “It documents my sessions with Eve in minute detail. Have you not read the transcripts, Herr Doctor?”
“You delude yourself, Sigmund. Like Mary, Eve was distracted by a few voices. How did you say it? From the aberrant minority. She just needed space to hear the other voices again, the many. She didn’t need psychoanalysis. Neither does Mary. You’ve got it all wrong.”
Dr. Freud swiped at some papers on his desk. “I’ve indulged you long enough, Carl. I know what I’m doing.” For a dead moment he stared at Dr. Jung in silence. “I am head of this facility and you are my junior. I no longer want you interfering with my patient.” He shoved his chair under the desk and walked stiffly away.
“Sigmund, wait.” Dr. Jung swung from his perch on the desk and tapped off after his mentor.
Freya’s heartbeat tripped over itself, a rhythm of excitement and alarm. It seemed the voices she’d heard in the garden, that multitude of souls, had the power to influence her. To influence her thoughts. And the exact same thing had happened to someone else.
A lamp remained lit on Dr. Freud’s desk. Freya approached it on tip-toe and shifted a few papers about. She found the file marked EVE and slid underneath the desk for privacy.
Hysterical tendencies, she read. Delusional…identity crisis…classic symptoms. She skipped halfway down the page. Subject convinced…name of Embla…wife of Ask…progenitors of human race…Norse origins. She skipped some more. Treatment commencing…positive results…Eve restored…full self-recognition…
What had Dr. Jung said? He knew exactly what Freya was going through. And here was the evidence. But why did he want Freya to be Mary, and not who she really was?
Dr. Jung was standing right there when Freya came out from under the desk. He uncrossed his arms from over his chest and plucked the folder out of Freya’s hand. Freya moved aside so he could file it away again. When he was done they stood looking at each other.
Freya said, “I seem to remember the woman in those papers. Her husband was named Ask. We come from the same country.”
“You must forget all that, Mary.”
“But why?” Freya seized a handful of her own hair in frustration. “Tell me why.”
“Because the world is depending on you. If you stop being Mary, what happens to the rest of the gods? You’re part of a fabric, a system. If your thread frays, it begins to unravel all of them, an entire system of belief.”
“Fine.” Freya’s jaws snapped together. “Let’s all unravel together. We can all go back to being who we really are.”
“Who you really are,” Dr. Jung said, “is not up to you. They make you strong or weak, Mary.”
“But I can escape them. I can find my own way home, I know I can. But only if you help me. I need to get to the other side of that fence. I need to get beyond the garden. Do you understand?”
“I understand you perfectly,” Dr. Jung said and slipped his fingers into his waistcoat pocket. He pulled out a key with a little flourish, and winked at her.
“For the gate?” Freya said. She clamped her fingers over the bones of Dr. Jung’s wrist. “Give it to me.”
“Oh, no, my dear. I’m coming with you, to see my theory prove itself.”
Freya turned and pulled Dr. Jung across the floor. Their feet rumbled like thunder in the dead silence of after hours. Dr. Jung laughed as they crashed through the double doors and an alarm shrieked into existence. It chased them helter-skelter into the garden.
Gravel sliced Freya’s instep and her heart knocked against her ribs. Dr. Jung kept pace beside her. She flung a glance over her shoulder. Herr Doctor Freud thumped against the door, his palms splayed against the glass to either side of his bearded face. In a moment he was outside and in pursuit.
Freya picked up the pace. She could see the fence beyond the cheerful flowers. A cramp knifed her side, once, twice. Footfalls sounded on the path behind her. Her hands struck the iron of the gate. Dr. Jung jammed the key into the keyhole.
“Hurry,” Freya said. “Carl, hurry. Open it.” Dr. Freud burst from the shrubs behind her, blossoms swirling around his shoulders. “Carl!”
“It’s open,” Dr. Jung said. “Push.”
Freya pushed. The gate caught and checked and released, and they burst through it. Freya sprinted into the darkness of the wood, the smell of damp, the smell of life untrammeled.
She walked for hours, loving the way the moisture swathed her skin, the cool night breezes, the rustling of the ferns. Dr. Jung walked patiently beside her. Dr. Freud had not followed them through the gate. The trees grew thin.
“Look,” Freya said and flung up a hand. “Do you see it? It’s like the ghost of a mountain, like a white crown. If you concentrate, you can see Bifrost just below. Can you see it, the shimmering of the Rainbow Bridge?”
“I don’t see anything,” Dr. Jung said.
“Oh, but it’s Asgard, the jewel of Vanaheim. It’s home.”
“It looks like a streetlight to me, my dear.”
When Freya looked again she saw a glow beyond the trees, a lamp, a beacon, very bright, shining where the mountain had been. They followed it to a paved lot that even at this early hour was full of cars. Beyond the cars rose a steepled house with tall wooden doors. Radiance spilled from the stained glass windows.
“Listen,” Dr. Jung said softly. “Can you hear them singing?”
Freya listened. Beneath the hymn, deeper, a low hum filled her ears, her chest, until she could scarcely breathe. A deep compulsion welled up in her. She crossed the lot and stopped in front of the heavy doors.
“I want to go in there,” she said. “I can feel them, pulling at me.”
“But?” Dr. Jung said.
“I don’t want to stop being Freya.”
Dr. Jung stepped in front of her, threw the doors wide and turned to face her.
“Don’t worry, my dear. I know it seems that way, but Mary won’t last forever either. You’ll have other names in time. New ones, that haven’t even been thought of yet.”
Freya peered past his shoulder. At the far end of a dim, candlelit space a robed figure gazed at her with steady eyes. It was only a statue, mounted halfway up the wall in a gold-painted recess. The statue wore a crown and held a scepter, and cradled a baby in her lap. There was something about the figure, something terribly familiar. Freya took a step toward her.
“Go on, my dear.” He gave her a little push between the shoulder blades.
Freya walked toward the lady with the baby, away from Dr. Jung, past the rows of kneeling, singing people. Smoothly, so that she hardly noticed it, her feet began to pedal empty air. Her body rose to the alcove where the statue of the Queen of Heaven sat, rose to meet her. Their foreheads touched and in a flash of light they became one. When Freya could see again an impressive looking man turned toward her on his golden throne. Celestial winds tugged at his robes and played with his cloudy beard.
“Welcome back, Mary,” he said kindly.
She gave him a smile. It felt good to be home again. A multitude of voices rushed through her consciousness, singing her praises.
But an unsettled feeling nagged at her. “Is Eve somewhere close?” she asked. “I feel as if there’s something I should speak with her about.”
x x x
A short treatment of a fascinating concept by a newcomer to Anotherealm, this story enthralled me. The idea of the goddess as the center of faith itself is not a new one, but the way Ms. Siples handles it is unique. Agree or disagree on our BBS. - GM