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Reader Favorite Wednesday: Ratatoskr
Editor’s note(s): Because we’ve grown so much in the past year, we asked you, our readers, to let us know what your early favorite stories were, so we could share them with everyone during the months of November and December. We’re so pleased to share our sixth Reader Favorite Wednesday story: Kij Johnson’s “Ratatoskr” — now free to read — from March 2022. ~ Fran & Julian, December 21, 2022. (We include our original editors’ note with each story as well, below.)
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.
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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.
And Dad, reliably, comes in. He wears pajamas and his glasses. He’s barefoot. “What is it?” he asks. He’s a little impatient: he has an early service in the morning; this is Saturday night. Lila is too terrified to care.
“Out . . . the window,” she gasps, then bursts into tears.
Lila doesn’t have nightmares very often. With an inward sigh, Dad sits on the bed beside her, and she throws herself into his arms. “A . . . monster,” she pants. “Outside the window! It was . . . bigger than the house. . . .” She starts to cry again.
He gets it out of her eventually. She saw a shape behind the elms, titanic, glowing dimly, with a tail of fire and shining white eyes. Her description sounds like a squirrel to him, but he doesn’t laugh—though he will tomorrow, when he tells his wife about it as they dress for church. Cradling Lila in one arm, he leans across the bed, pushes the curtain open. Elms, streetlamps, lightning. “No monster,” he says. “See? Just the trees in the wind.” She seems calmer now, so he adds, “I think you might have been dreaming, bunny.”
“No,” she says flatly. Lila can be very stubborn. “It was there.”
“Look,” he says. He points with a finger. “See? Maybe that was the tail you saw—that streak there—and this part might be the head?”
“It saw me,” she says. “It was coming toward the house.”
He doesn’t say: That was just the wind moving the trees, bunny. Lila’s entirely capable of turning an opportunity like this into a tantrum or at least an all-night conversation, and his alarm is going to go off at six thirty. He strokes her back, like a kitten’s. “Well, it’s gone now. I promise you’re safe.”
He gets out after only nine questions, dodged with the skill of experience. Bedtime prayers once more, another good-night kiss.
For her part, Lila knows what she saw. Dad closed the window, but once he is gone, she kneels at the foot of her bed and pushes the curtains aside again. She saw exactly what he was pointing at—tail, head—but she knows the monster was real. More even than she knows that Jesus is real, because she’s never seen him outside of pictures in Dad’s church, and this . . . It was right there.
She never forgets this.
* * *
Later that summer, she figures it out.
The library in her very small town is one room, with rotating metal fans under a high plaster ceiling deeply carved (later, she’ll learn to say sculpted) with floral garlands and baskets of fruit. Honey-colored oak bookcases line the walls. There is a desk by the door. It all smells delicious, of glue dried to dust and the sunburned-grass scent of old paper.
She is allowed to check out three books at a time. She is way past children’s by now, up to the Ks in science fiction: two bookcases’ worth of rocket-ship stickers that she is reading systematically with the utter focus of Summer Book Club. Come Labor Day, no one but her parents will believe how many books she read or what they were.
Still, sometimes she goes back to children’s, slumming, and today there’s something new: D’Aulaires’ Book of Norse Myths. She can tell already it’s a Perfect Book: oversize, mythology, pictures, decent number of words. Best of all, she is the very first person to check it out. She writes her name, Lila Maurtveit, extra neatly on the top line of its crisp unstained checkout card.
Her mom has insisted she spend the day outside—Don’t even think about coming home before the five-o’clock whistle—so Lila bikes to the little park across the street from her house and flops facedown on a shaded picnic table. On page 32, she reads about Ratatosk. He’s a squirrel that runs up and down the world tree, Yggdrasil, carrying news between the eagle on the top of the tree and the dragon at its roots. There’s a picture on the next page, but it’s just an ordinary cute squirrel with tufted ears and bright eyes, and it doesn’t look any bigger than a real squirrel.
Lila knows better, because Ratatosk is what she saw that night. Ratatosk, taller than the elms, glowing, looking at her with his white eyes.
She climbs off the picnic table and walks to one of the park’s many oaks. She’s careful to look for anthills before lying back on the cool grass, with the top of her head just touching the tree trunk. It goes up for a long way without branches before it radiates into a silent summer-long firework. Other trees reach up and into her line of vision, greens and greens and greens, their trunks all pointing toward a clump of dead leaves exactly overhead. She wishes it were an eagle. She imagines Ratatosk running down the trunk, from outer space all the way down to where she is. He’s got something to tell the dragon, whose name is Nidhogg. The hard roots behind her head are Nidhogg’s tail—but that gets a little scary, so she sits up, pulls grass from her hair.
“Ratatosk,” she tries the word aloud. Rat and tusk. Cool.
* * *
There’s one other book about Norse myths in the library, something called the Elder Edda. It’s shelved in classics, and it is ancient—it says 1889 on the title page—covered in faded blue fabric with gold writing on the spine. Lila has to get special permission from her parents to check it out, even though it’s on the regular shelves.
She slogs through, understanding very little and mixing the names up in a way that will confuse her about Norse mythology for the rest of her life. In the end, there isn’t any more here than in the d’Aulaires’ book, except that this book says gossipinstead of news, and spells his name Ratatoskr. This sounds better to Lila: fancier, more monstery, more godlike.
* * *
In the summer, every day is the same except Sunday. And even that. As soon as church is over and Sunday dinner eaten, the rest of the week, all the way to next Sunday morning at nine a.m., stretches like hot taffy, drooping in the middle. So it’s hard to say when exactly she sees her first squirrel-ghost. School’s still a long way off, anyway.
Lila’s riding back and forth on the street by her house, on her new emerald-green bike with the gorilla handlebars and white banana seat, and she notices the dead squirrel on the pavement. There’s always one somewhere, sometimes scarily flat, with strange smears that darken over days until they wash away in the next rainstorm. This one looks unsmashed, just curled into a gray comma on the street—except for the dried trickle of blood under its open mouth and its one visible eye, still open, still shiny black.
She drops her bike into the grass by the sidewalk, checks for grown-ups and cars, then crouches in the street. The sun shines through the fan vaulting of the elms, a shivering blend of light and dark.
And this is the first time Lila sees a squirrel’s ghost. In the shadows, it’s only a thickening of the shade. In sunlight it’s a something, like the cellophane discarded from a pack of cigarettes. Maybe the ghosts have always been there and she just never noticed. Advertising was like that: suddenly one day she realized all those pictures and words everywhere were about things you were supposed to buy.
The ghost is nosing at its body, confused.
“You can’t stay here,” Lila says. She leans back on her heels, thinking. She can’t pick the corpse up with her hands. Mom has been very specific about touching dead animals, and in any case: fleas, ticks, maybe pieces falling off. If she did try to pick it up, maybe it would be saggy or rigid. And there might be maggots. “Don’t be scared,” she says to the ghost. “Wait for me—I’ll be right back.”
Five minutes later she has snuck inside and retrieved a shoebox she usually keeps under her bed, all the Barbie clothes she stores there dumped onto her pillow. She crouches down again beside the squirrel, realizes she will need a sturdy stick, stands again. Fifty years from now she won’t remember how effortless this all was: Lila with knee surgery coming up, steady aches in her right hip and the sprained ankle from three years ago that never quite recovered.
She uses a stick from the park to roll the body into the shoebox. The underside eye is skim-milk white, and it reminds her of Ratatoskr’s pale eyes in the darkness and wind. “I’m sorry,” she says to the eye. The ghost frets, away and then close again, and then she feels a swarming electrical zap that starts in her ankle and writhes up her body, settling like the buzzing of a honeybee into the space between her shoulder blades. It is the squirrel-ghost, along for the ride.
Lila carries the box to the alley behind Dad’s church carefully, the way she would hold an offertory plate. Her bike stays where it is: no one steals bikes in this town, in this decade. Under the low branches of the lilac bush, she makes a nest of branches covered with red leaves pulled from a scarlet maple in the church’s side yard, carefully rolls the squirrel into it. A little splash of electricity shimmers through her shoulders and dissolves, and the ghost reappears.
“Hang on,” she says to the little squirrel-ghost. Five minutes later she returns from a kitchen raid with a juice glass filled with Wheat Chex and Planters peanuts. She will forget the juice glass here, and after this there will always be only five in the set.
Milky-eyed, the body lies cradled in its shady nest. The first questing ants have found it; she uses a twig to brush them away. The ghost is still there, sitting on its hind legs with its front paws curled under. She thinks it looks anxious. “It’s okay,” she says, and pours the food onto a piece of bark. “There, I got you something.”
The little ghost seems to see the food, tips down to inspect it with its narrow face, hips high and front paws close together. It still looks anxious. Does it need her to bury the body? She doesn’t like the thought of that. It was raining a day ago, which means there will be worms. “You don’t want to be with worms,” she tells it. “You like trees.” It seems to agree.
That’s the first one.
* * *
After a while she realizes that she doesn’t need to retrieve their bodies or leave food. The ghosts are willing enough to leave their shattered bodies, if offered an alternative.
She invites them in, little electric shivers that swim up through her body and wait quivering inside her shoulders until she finds safe places for them: wasteland forests, county parks, random clumps of trees. She doesn’t know what they do next, but she never sees one again after she has brought it to a woodland. Perhaps Ratatoskr claims them. Perhaps he is their god. Maybe this is why there was so little about him in the Edda, in d’Aulaire: he’s not for humans. Maybe he takes the squirrels who died violently off to some squirrel Valhalla, where they wait until Ragnarok, until the moment the world is meant to end, when they will return and—
—and fight? That seems unlikely. They didn’t pick fights with the cars that killed them. Perhaps, unlike the dead warriors of Valhalla, there is no end to their heaven. Ratatoskr gives them a forest free of feral cats and coyotes, where walnuts fall from every tree and bird feeders are interesting puzzles that can always, eventually, be solved. Or maybe it’s not quite that easy? Nothing in life is simple, so why would death be?
She will see squirrel-ghosts for the rest of her life. When she turns thirty-six, she will marry a vet tech with big, careful hands and a slow laugh, Jamie from Spokane. They will share everything—concerns about their parents as they age, grief and dread as the world grows simultaneously hotter and colder. If anyone would understand, it would be Jamie. Does he see the ghosts of Scotties and tortoiseshells? But in the end, she will say nothing to him. Ultimately, how we see death is a private matter.
* * *
Five years after her marriage to Jamie, her father will die, and ten after that, her mother. Jamie’s parents will die in their eighties, and then Lila and Jamie will be alone. Eventually it will just be Lila; Lila and the squirrels and the memory of Ratatoskr.
* * *
Lila does see Ratatoskr again. Eight years after the first time, she has graduated to a decent dirt bike and spends her free afternoons riding the gravel roads around town. In the fall, she leaves for college in Oregon. By spring, her parents will have moved to Wisconsin. She will never come back.
She’s on one of the overpasses where a county road crosses the railroad tracks that arrow east–west across the world, like an infinite snake stretched out in the sun. August, late afternoon, the sort of day people say is too hot to bike unless you are eighteen, not seeing anyone, and bored.
For years, she’s biked these roads. Except for the overpasses, it’s all flat: fields of black dirt or snow in the winters, corn and soybeans in the summers. Tangled hedgerows thread between them, with wandering woodlands of cottonwood tracing the creeks and runoffs. Towns are forests, just their water towers and steeples visible above the canopy. Scattered across the landscape: old corncribs and ruined barns turned silver with time, blue-and-white silos clustered like cans on a shelf in farmyards otherwise hidden by poplar windbreaks. The stop sign where T63 meets 188 is miles away, a single fleck of startling red in all this green and gold. Lina is seeing 130 square miles of the world, pinned down by the sky.
And up, of course, an infinity. To the west and north, attended by smaller cumuli like acolytes, a thunderhead the size of a mountain advances inexorably toward her, indigo at its base and pushing a cold wind. Or will it pass just to the north? She drinks tepid water from the metal canteen her family used to use for camping and she waits, though she doesn’t know why yet. For the rain to cool her on her way home, she thinks. For something.
She sees Ratatoskr suddenly, mysterious as a message on crumpled cellophane. But she can read the scattered light: he is miles high and scarcely a field away, clinging head-down to a pillar of air just ahead of the cloud. She stands immobile, afraid to breathe, afraid to move. His white eye is bigger than she is; if he were to look at her, she would—
And he does.
* * *
For her entire life, she will try to make sense of all this: Ratatoskr in the trees, the ghosts, Ratatoskr climbing down the pillar of the sky. At the end, she gets her answer, but just too late to share it with us.
Thank you for being part of The Sunday Morning Transport’s journey this week!
Kij Johnson writes short fiction and novels, and is a winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards. She teaches creative writing at the University of Kansas.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our authors’ work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.