From the beautiful and profound The Man Who Bridged the Mist to the sharp and brutal Spar, Kij Johnson’s short fiction spans the entire gamut of expression, and is never less than brilliant. This story, which mixes squirrel ghosts, life in the suburbs, and Norse mythology is no exception.
~ Julian Yap, March 27, 2022.
When Lila is ten, she wakes up one night. Her bed is next to the window facing the alley that runs behind her dad’s church; at night in the summertime, it is a shadowy tunnel overhung with elms. This is back when elms dominate every small American town, before disease destroys the great Gothic arches that make cathedrals of the streets. This is also before air-conditioning is common in Iowa houses: let’s say, the 1960s. She’s the daughter of a Lutheran pastor and a librarian. She is bookish and observant. This is Ray Bradbury country.
It is July, and there are thunderstorms every third night, the ratcheting clockwork of Great Plains summer weather still somewhat reliable. Storms are so regular that Lila can sleep through rolling thunder and even lightning. Not this time, though.
Her white curtains are shut but her window is open, so they billow. When she was six, practically a baby, this scared her and she screamed one night until her father ran into the room, comforted her, and showed her that the terrifying ghosts were just her normal curtains, unlined poplin with a border of black pom-pom fringe, sewn by Mom for her last birthday. When they blow open, she sees the shadowy elms shaken by the wind, and through them, flickers of sickly light from the streetlamp at the alley’s end. She’s seen all of this before.
She pulls her sheets up to her nose and shifts her head on the pillow so that she can peek out more easily. Silent summer lightning heaves behind the trees: now outlining their crowns in precise silhouette; now gone, leaving only darkness and scraps of streetlight. The blowing trees make a sound like waves on a stony beach, a noise she knows from last summer’s vacation to Oregon. Lightning; trees; surf-sound; streetlight; curtains. None of this frightens her.
—Until the lightning collects into a form taller than the trees. For a moment, the curtains slap shut, concealing it; but they blow back open and it’s still there, so she screams for her father, though she is careful not to move, not to draw its pale eye.