In a role reversal to Ideomancer’s September interview, Featured Author Greg van Eekhout answers a few questions from fellow writer Tim Pratt.
Tim Pratt: You’ve just taken the great leap into full-time writing, at least on a trial basis. Do you have any specific goals for the next six months, either artistically or practically? Or, to make it a bit less lofty: what are you planning to work on?
Greg van Eekhout: Well, primarily I hope not to turn into Elvis or Howard Hughes over the next several months. I basically have about a six-month window of opportunity in which I get to be a full-time writer, and at the end of it, I need to have a novel written and a handful of short stories. I’m a bit skittish about discussing the projects in much more detail than that, but I will say that the novel is a contemporary fantasy that’s been gnawing at me for a long time, and it’s got valkyries and zombies and big, scary dogs.
TP: There’s a lot of talk online, at conventions, and in magazines about various perceived movements in current SF — the New Space Opera, The New Weird, Interstitialism, and so on. Do you identify with any of these movements, or have any comments about such movements in general?
GvE: Back in the 70’s there was a line of Mattel action figures, Big Jim’s P.A.C.K. There was Warpath, who was a kind of scout or tracker guy; and Dr. Steel, a strongman with a steel hand; and The Whip, who was the weapons guy; and Big Jim himself, the brains of the outfit. I always thought that kind of categorization was a bit forced. Why couldn’t The Whip use Warpath’s stunner arrows? Why couldn’t Dr. Steel toss The Whip’s boomerangs? And why was Big Jim the only guy with a radio? What if he got separated from the rest of the P.A.C.K.? It was just a crazy way for men of action to organize themselves.
That’s kind of how I feel about these movements.
TP: Let’s hear a little about your writing habits. Any special places, personal rituals, habitual oddities, or strong preferences? Where and how do you do your best work?
GvE: Well, basically I spend $1.70 every time I write, because I like to write in cafés, and it’s no fun without a big-ass mug of strong black coffee. And by mug, I mean something made of ceramic with a handle. Something with some satisfying heft. None of these paper cups for me.
I get most of my writing done in the morning, which is really important for me. That way, no matter what else happens during the day — bad time at the office, traffic ticket, bee sting, a monkey steals my sack lunch — at least I started the day off doing what I love doing. There have been so many times when being able to think back on that little bit of space carved out for writing has gotten me through a bad day at work. Day Job crap could be flying all around me, and I’d close my eyes and remind myself that I started the day off writing, and that means the day was a success.
TP: Tell us a bit about your influences, literary and otherwise.
GvE: Wow, I’d love to say Borges and Coletrane, because I think that’d make me look classy and smart, but I’d be fibbing. In no particular order, some of the creative people who’ve most directly influenced my work would be Ray Bradbury, Roger Zelazny, Stephen King, Jim Henson, Bill Watterson, Tim Powers, Dan Simmons, Rod Serling, and whoever was doing Mad Magazine when I was 8 or 9 years old. I think a screen adaptation of IT done with Muppets would absolutely kick ass.
TP: Do you ever attend writing workshops? Do you like working with other writers in that kind of setting, or do you prefer working in isolation?
GvE: I went to Viable Paradise in 1999, a week-long workshop held every year on Martha’s Vineyard and a great option for people who can’t take six weeks off to do a Clarion-type thing. And this past August I went to the Strange Horizons workshop at Rockaway Beach, Oregon. The key to a good workshop is proximity to the ocean, really. In both circumstances, I got helpful feedback on my submitted pieces, but even more valuable than that was the opportunity simply to hang out with other writers. There’s the stereotype of the writer as some twitchy, poorly socialized, unbathed misanthrope, but that doesn’t map to my experience. The writers I’ve met at workshops have been hilarious fun. Smart, interesting, warm and generous people.
Writers certainly can work in complete isolation if they wish, but I don’t know why anyone would want to when instead you can walk down a beach with half a dozen people who share your passion for Moleskine notebooks. So, yeah, I like workshops and hope to attend more of them. But I do admit I go to socialize as much as I do to get my work critiqued.
TP: You’ve written a number of well-received short stories, and you’ve mentioned a desire to write a novel soon — are there any other forms you’re interested in trying, or that you have tried? Poetry, comics, screenplays, opera librettos, Iron Chef slash fanfic, etc.?
GvE: Hey, who told you about my Iron Chef thing? That’s messed up, man.
Like many writers, I want to try my hand at everything. Comics in particular have been a lifelong love of mine, and I’d love to collaborate with a talented, like-minded artist some day. That said, I do have to face the fact that my talents are probably not suited to every medium. For a time I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I thought greeting cards might be a good outlet for me. I even met with a guy who owned a printing press and wanted to give Hallmark a run for its money. He took one look at my samples and said, “Okay, these are actually disturbing. Your stuff is actually creeping me out.” So, you know, I’m going to focus on short stories and novels for a while before branching out too far afield.
I watched the bird circle over town, its wings a black shadow in the moon-silvered sky. Father was mayor then, and we lived on the upper floor of the town hall. While the town slept, I would stand at the window in my nightdress, shivering, and gaze out beyond the thatch and clay rooftops, beyond the animal pens and the orchard and the fields, beyond the Wall, to the jagged black mountains on the horizon. So, when the bird came, I was the first to spot it.
After a few moments, I guess the watchmen in the tower saw the bird, too, and they rang the bell. I was ten years old and I knew my bells. There was Fire, which meant we grabbed our buckets of water and sand and burlap sacks. There was Storm, which meant the clouds had formed spirit shapes and we had to take the animals indoors. But the night the bird came, they sounded a bell I’d never heard before, a single low tone that you felt in your chest and in the backs of your eyes.
Down below, grownups rushed out of the houses and into the square. Father was one of the first there, his hair sleep-matted into a crest, white legs sticking out from the bottom of his nightshirt. He was joined by Mr. Cragg, the miller, and his wife May, both of them solid as sacks of flour. And there was tall Doc Gish in his long coat, his face hidden by the vast brim of his hat. They all watched the bird circle in silence.
One of the watchmen came down the tower and trained his long rifle on the bird, but Father put his hand on the barrel.
“Mayor, let him shoot the damn thing,” said Doc Gish.
And Father, with his white legs and funny hair, said, “It’s not open for debate.”
The bird soared in slow, graceful circles. I could see now that it had something in its talons. Something round and yellow, about the size of a muskmelon. Whatever the object was, the bird dropped it, and the grown-ups reached toward the sky. A skull fell into Father’s hands.
The bird made one more circle, then flapped its wings and headed out into the far-away. I watched it for as long as I could.
“Let me see it,” said Doc Gish, and without taking his hands off it, Father showed him the skull the bird had dropped. I saw big, round eye sockets and teeth.
“It’s too soon, John,” said Doc Gish to Father. “We haven’t had enough births. We can’t afford it.”
Cragg spoke up: “You don’t get to decide when we can afford it, Doc. We take the walk when it’s time to take the walk. We pay the price when it’s time to pay the price. Me and my wife, we’ve paid more than anyone, and we don’t cry about it. We take the walk.”
Doc Gish put his hands in his coat pockets and craned his neck. In the moonlight I saw his smile. He wore that same smile when he looked at a newborn and knew it wouldn’t survive the night.
“Mayor,” he said, “maybe we should lose everything. Maybe, if this is the only way to keep it, we don’t deserve what we’ve got.”
Cragg’s wife walked up to Father. “No,” she said. “It’s like the mayor said. It’s not open for debate.” She held out her hands to Father. “Now give me my son.”
And Father handed her the skull.
The next morning, for the first time in my life, I went outside the Wall. Everybody in town gathered, and the two eldest watchmen pushed open the gates. As soon as we walked through, as soon as we were outside, the gates were shut, and the bars clanked back into place.
Father had woken me up that morning with a kiss on the forehead and told me to dress in the clothes folded at the foot of the bed. I did, and he led me by the hand downstairs and outside.
“We’re going for a walk,” I said. “Aren’t we?”
And he looked at me strangely and nodded. “Yes, Abigail.”
Cragg was there with his son, Robert, and Doc Gish with Michelle, his little girl, and Mr. Tander with his twin boys, and Mr. Yim with his son and three girls. The Yims were something of a wonder in our town: four children, and all of them still alive.
There were fourteen of us gathered outside the wall. All the children in town.
The Rider was there, too, with his apprentice, each of them on a mule.
Michelle, a pale girl with bird-thin wrists asked me where we were going. “Poppa won’t tell me,” she said. It was strange hearing Doc Gish called Poppa. He was Doc Gish.
We each had a backpack containing hard rolls of bread wrapped in cloth, dried pears, small lumps of salt, and jars of white cream — a sun ointment that smelled of agave. We also had skins of water, and the Rider told us to drink only when he said so.
“Everybody stays together,” he barked. He was looking at Doc Gish when he said it.
And so we set out, walking behind the Rider and his apprentice, away from the town, toward the black hills on the horizon.
After a while — an hour, perhaps eight hours, I didn’t know — my legs ached and my feet burned. My tongue felt like wood, and only my deep fear of the Rider kept me from sneaking a drink.
“Abigail, look.” Father turned me around and pointed me back toward town. It was so far off, now. So small and pretty, like a sliver of my mother’s china.
“It’s a miracle, Abigail. It’s a miracle that such a fragile thing survives in the middle of all this.” He swept his arm in a gesture that encompassed the wasteland. “But you can’t take miracles for granted. It’s the kind of thing you have to tend. Lose sight of that, and it goes away.”
On our third day out, the Rider’s apprentice died. Sundown had brought aching cold, and an easterly wind came blasting across the desert, vicious and free. The men were stacking rocks to build a shelter when the apprentice let out a short scream.
He looked to the Rider, his cheeks red as though embarrassed. “Something bit me,” he said.
The Rider scanned the ground, and then his eyebrows went up suddenly. He made a motion and there was a knife in his hand, and he threw it to the ground.
I never got a good look at the thing that killed the apprentice.
Doc couldn’t help him. We left his body beneath a mound of rocks and built camp somewhere else, even though it meant more hiking in the cold.
“Peter’s mother is past child-bearing,” Doc said to Father as we set up camp. “Won’t be another to replace him.”
Father said nothing. He stacked rocks.
“And even if there were another,” Doc Gish said, “that’s not really the point.” He handed father a stone.
We walked more the next day, cutting our hands as we climbed over piles of charred, twisted metal. We crossed a river of sluggish water the color of rust. We walked, and my back hurt and my legs hurt and my feet bled, and we walked.
On the fourth night, I hurt so bad I couldn’t sleep, even as tired as I was. I snuck away from Father and went to see Doc Gish. I found him sitting watch on a rock at the camp’s perimeter.
“Hey there, Abby,” he said as I approached. In the darkness, I couldn’t see his face under the brim of his hat.
He had something in his hands, which he put in mine.
I ran my finger along the edges of the narrow, slanted eye sockets, the blade-sharp cheekbones. I let the long canines almost pierce my thumb.
“This isn’t what the bird dropped in the square,” I said.
“Nope. Found it here in camp. Things get buried, things get revealed. It’s the way of wind and sand.”
I thought about our town. Until we’d started walking, it had been the center of the world, all I knew. It seemed so far away now. Just a little cluster of buildings, a tiny thing surrounded by the rest of the world. It could get buried like a skull in the desert. Of course it could. The realization was like ripping away a scab. Of course it could.
“What is it?” I asked, indicating the skull. “A sand wolf?”
Doc Gish took the skull back from me. “Not a sand wolf. We really don’t have a name for them. Isn’t that funny? All we surrender, and we don’t even have a name for them.” He tilted his hat back and looked at me, and I turned my head away from his smile. “You really want to know, Abby?”
“Good for you. Most people don’t, but it’s good to know, even if it isn’t easier. You’ve always been one to see, always looking out into the far-away. You’re more like me than your old man that way.” He tossed the skull into the sand. “There used to be thousands of these damn things. A long time ago. We lived in bigger towns back then, and the creatures lived in the nooks and crannies. Dark places, where we couldn’t see them. They hunted us. You know how a sand wolf hunts a goat?”
I didn’t, really.
“It was like that. But then, during the sick years, there were as few of us as there were of them. They couldn’t hide anymore. We went after them, and they went after us, and before long we would have wiped one another out if it hadn’t been for the arrangement.”
I was going to ask him what he meant by arrangement, but then someone said Doc Gish’s name. We both turned toward the voice. It was Father.
Sand crunched under his boots as he approached. “Go back to your shelter, Doc,” he said. “Your watch is over.”
Doc Gish put his hands on his knees and rose to his full height. “Keep seeing what you can see, Abigail. Look at something long enough, and you’ll see it for what it is.”
His shoulder almost brushed against Father’s as he returned to the center of camp, ending his watch.
Later that night, as the others slept, I saw them on the horizon. Twelve shapes, cloaks billowing behind them like smoke. They seemed to float over the ground.
I rose to my feet and took a step forward, and then Father was there with his firm hand on my shoulder. The others awakened and gathered.
Plumes of dust trailed behind the twelve, lit by flashes of lightning, green and gold and purple in the sky.
Soon, they stood at a small distance, towering, their faces the color of moonlight, diamond eyes sharp and glittering. The creatures shone like polished knives while we huddled together in the wind.
One of them glided towards us, stopping a few dozen yards off. Father met him in the middle distance. The creature parted its thin lips to speak, and in a whisper that carried, it said, “Are you the same one as last time?”
Not animals, then, I thought. And with that they went from being frightening, like a sand wolf, to something I could hate.
“No,” said Father. “That one died a few years ago. I’m mayor now.”
“I’m sorry,” said the creature. “The differences among you are very subtle to our eyes.”
“Let’s get this over with,” said Father.
The creature nodded. It parted its cloak, and from the shadows emerged three small, white shivering things. The creatures had children, too. Their arms were twigs, their eyes white and enormous.
The tall creature said something to the small ones in a language that sounded like singing, pretty sounds, and the small ones stepped forward, gazing up at Father.
Father had a knife. He grabbed one of the creatures by the chin and pushed its head back roughly. He slid the blade across the creature’s throat. Blood fanned over him. He let the creature fall to the sand.
Knees and thighs and belly soaked with blood, Father rejoined us. The tall creature followed him.
It approached me. Putting a cool finger to the side of my neck, the creature smiled and I saw its teeth.
“No.” A single word, softly spoken.
Then, a loud crack that rolled over the desert.
I turned and saw Doc Gish, belly-down in the sand. There was a pistol near his shuddering hand. His face was turned to the side. The handle of Father’s knife stuck out his left eye.
Father put Doc’s still-smoking pistol in his backpack while Michelle knelt at Doc’s side, her hands fluttering over his body as if she wanted to touch him but didn’t know how.
Father spoke to the creature. “I’m sorry,” he said. “He acted on his own.”
“We will take this one,” said the creature. He put his hand on Robert’s shoulder.
Cragg the miller screwed his eyes shut as the creature pulled Robert toward him. Robert shrieked. He kicked sand and spat. He clawed at the creature’s hands, drawing pale blood. Just before he disappeared into the creature’s cloak, Cragg opened his eyes. “Thank you, boy,” he said.
And then Robert was gone.
Days later, when the town once more appeared on the horizon, it looked like a sliver of bone.
“It’s a garden,” Father said. “Thing with gardens is, you have to tend them.”
Cragg had maintained a stoic silence on the way home. In later years, when I’d encounter him in the street or when buying my flour, I would sense in him a peculiar kind of pride, even superiority.
There was none of that in Father. One night, just a few weeks after we’d returned from the walk, he came into my room to tuck me in, and I found myself holding him, comforting him.
Michelle, Doc Gish’s little girl, lived another eight years. There was a sickness that struck down most of the town and she tried to use the powders and oils in Doc’s office. She read all his notebooks and even went out beyond the Wall with the Rider for a time to talk to the wise men of the trade caravans. But in the end she failed. We lost many adults and more than half the children. Michelle got the sickness herself and died without a trained apprentice to take her place.
Still, we live on.
I am grown now, married, and I have a son, Thomas. I have been mayor since Father died. I may be the last mayor this town ever has, and it will be my fault.
The bird came back last night and dropped a skull into my hands.
My backpack sits by the doorway. It contains crackers and dried fruit and salt lumps and sun ointment.
It contains my Father’s knife.
And also Doc Gish’s pistol, loaded with bullets fashioned from my mother’s silver teacups.
Cloth Guy. Mr. Rags. The Cleaning Man. His turf was the corner of Summit and Spenser, and I would see him there when the bus spit me out at 8:45, and again when it swallowed me at 6:15. He’d always be there with his frown and grimacing smile, and a pillow case close to hand filled with towels and T-shirts. He scoured the city — the light posts, the mailboxes, the vending machines selling porn newspapers — moving his cloth in fast figure-eights.
After a year watching, I could no longer contain my manners or curiosity, and I approached him. “Do you think you’ll ever get it clean?”
He was on his hand and knees, giving the sidewalk a go. “There’s a clean city beneath this one,” he said. “I’ll find it, eventually.”
I knew my history. Before the financial district grew up around here, this was Butcher’s Row. Offal floated down the hill on rivers of blood. And before that, during the great cholera epidemic, the settler’s colony chose this place to bury their dead. Armed patrols were posted to prevent famished dogs from digging up the bodies. This part of the city had never been clean.
“Long time ago, it was clean,” Mr. Rags said, anticipating my objections. His cloth made tight little figure-eights. “Nobody remembers anymore, because the dirt’s covered it all up. You people track it all over the place, tromping around like Mongol hordes over the steppe. We can never have nice things.”
My bus pulled up to the curb with a concert of hisses and squeals, and the doors accordioned open. Mr. Rags looked up at me, his hand still in motion. “It’d go faster if you helped.”
“Can’t,” I said. “PTA meeting tonight.” “What about tomorrow?”
“Dance recital. Or is it gymnastics? I can’t remember. It’s always something.” I stepped onto the bus.
“Isn’t it, though?” he said, pleasantly enough.
The bus doors shut with a slap of rubber, and I waved at him through the glass. He lifted his rag to wave back, and on the sidewalk, where he’d been polishing, a dime-sized spot of something bright as gold caught the lowering sun. I tried to rub the light from my dazzled eyes as the bus pulled away.
That night I dreamed. I can’t tell you what I saw in my dream, what happened in it, because the images and memories had fled by the time I lifted my head from the pillow. I do know that, as I brushed my teeth, I kept looking into the mirror, as if I maybe I could see something better behind it, and I felt like crying.
The next morning Mr. Rags was at work in the same place. The little spot of brilliance that I’d seen the previous evening was gone. If anything, the sidewalk was now dirtier than ever. He saw me watching him. “Thursdays are the worst,” he said. “Or maybe it’s Tuesdays.”
I could think of nothing to say. The gold light had been so pure.
He nodded with his chin towards his pillow case of rags. “Sure you won’t help?”
I checked my watch. My bus had run late. It was 9:02. “Budget report due before lunch,” I said.
He shrugged and smiled, returning to work, making his little infinity patterns.
And I stood there for another hour before finally setting down my brief case and taking up a cloth. I started with a bit of soot-caked, vomit-glazed side curb a few blocks away from Mr. Rags.
In all my years of effort, once, only once, have I seen a brief glimmer of rich, honey-colored light shining through. It was enough. Every day, when the bus comes and exhales grime on my labors, I pick up another cloth and begin anew.
Greg van Eekhout has sold fiction to Asimov’s Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Starlight 3, Strange Horizons, and a number of other short story markets. He lives in Tempe, Arizona, where he is currently working on a novel. “Clean City” came about during an eight-day span in which Greg was writing a short-short a day, some of which he’d gathered in a suite called Tales From the City of Seams. He felt “Clean City” stood well enough on its own that he separated it from its litter mates and forced it to fend for itself. Fortunately for him and the story, Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond took it in for their fine zine Say…What Time Is It? Thematically, the story stems from Greg’s belief that there’s always cool stuff going on around him, only he’s too dense to notice.
My brother and I flew recon over the gray Santa Monica beach, half-frozen rain striking our black feathers. Below, a skater swaddled in Gor-Tex swished around the curves of the bike path, while surfers in wetsuits bobbed in the dark waters.
It was the coldest winter on record in Southern California. It was the coldest winter everywhere.
“Hey,” said my brother. “Down there.” Without waiting, he dove toward the sand where a dead Rotweiller rolled in the white foam. It had been a long flight and we were both ravenous. I angled in to follow, and soon we were absorbed in our feast.
A big gray gull challenged our salvage rights, screaming and beating us with his wings, but we tore him to shreds, ate him, then returned to the dog.
Later, my brother would be able to report every minute detail of the incident. He’d describe the precise markings on the gull’s bill, the way he favored his left foot over his right, the iron and salt taste of his blood.
But he wouldn’t be able to say why we’d killed him. He’s expert at the whats and whens and wheres, but he leaves the whys to me.
His name is Munin, Memory. I’m Hugin, Thought.
Our hunger satisfied, we took to the skies again and continued south over the T-shirt shops and sunglass stands of Venice boardwalk. When we reached the storm-shattered pier, we turned seaward, onward, away and beyond.
We heard a blue whale sing its last song before dying of old age. We watched an undiscovered species of fish go extinct. And we saw something enormous on the ocean floor, slithering on its belly and churning waves hundreds of fathoms above.
We flew and flew, carefully observing and cataloging so that later we could give Odin, our boss, an accurate report. But first we had a special appointment to keep.
Well past the horizons of Midgard we came upon the shores of the dead. Hel is a dry place. It’s a land of gray plains and twigs and dust. And in the center of this land there lived a pair of slain gods. We found them reclining atop the roof of a great timber hall, passing a cup back and forth.
The poets used to say that Baldr was so good and pure he radiated white light, a sun compressed into human form. There used to be something about him, something that, when he walked by, made a man put down his drinking horn or stop hammering trolls for a second and just be glad he was alive to witness the moment. You knew that Baldr, somehow, was what the whole thing was about.
He was still beautiful, but not the same. Now he was cold and magisterial, a god of glaciers and dark stone mountains. He rose to his feet and announced our arrival to his brother.
Höd was a much humbler creature, thinner in the shoulder, longer in the face, his shriveled eyes lost in dark sockets. You really didn’t want to look into those sockets. They went a long way down.
We landed on Baldr’s outstretched forearms and dug our talons in a little to see if he’d flinch. He didn’t, of course. Even exiled from the realms of the living, he was still a god. “Just when I was thinking you wouldn’t come,” he said. “I’m glad to see you. Let’s go inside.”
Getting welcomed to Hel isn’t such an enormous thrill, but I politely thanked him anyway.
His hall was cold and dimly lit. Pale flames wavered in the hearth, their light barely pushing back the shadows. A long table bore a modest feast — a few loaves of bread, a pair of emaciated roast pigs.
Munin perched on the edge of the table and appraised the fare. “I guess it’s a good thing we already ate.”
Höd’s jaw muscles clenched. “If you’d like to contribute to the meal, I can start plucking feathers right now.”
Baldr laughed. “Brother,” he said in his gentle voice, “we observe hospitality in my house.”
I think Höd would have rolled his eyes had he been capable.
At the end of the table sat a plump old woman in a purple sweatshirt. The shopping cart beside her was filled with empty soup cans, magazines, rotting batteries, a sword hilt, a broken car antenna. Over her matted gray hair she wore a Minnesota Vikings cap. She clutched a long twig in her left hand.
“Sibyl,” I said, nodding respectfully. I hadn’t seen the witch-prophetess in a long time. Not since the world was younger and greener, when, in exchange for a meal, she’d told Odin how the world would end.
“There is an ash tree,” she said now. “Its name is Yggdrasil. Lofty Yggdrasil, the Ash Tree, trembles, ancient wood groaning.”
Not knowing if she was uttering an incantation or just making conversation, I indicated the twig with my wing. “Is that part of Yggdrasil?”
She shook the stick. “Yggdrasil’s an ash. Does this look like ash? Stupid bird.”
Same old sibyl.
We sat around the table and picked at the skinny pigs for a while before Baldr asked us about affairs back in the land of men. Normally we report only to Odin, but how often do you get invited to Baldr’s house? So Munin spoke of the weather on Midgard. Three winters, each colder and longer than the previous one, with little summer between. Floods, bad crops, people freezing in the streets, hoarding and price gouging and rioting and looting.
Munin didn’t say the word.
He didn’t have to.
We all knew where this was heading: Ragnarök. The great monsters would do battle with the gods, and most of the gods would be slain. Heimdall. Hermod. Frey. Thor. Even Odin. A world without Odin. And the world itself would burn and crumble, and the ancient chaos that preceded us all would return. But from the ashes would rise the younger gods, and Baldr and Höd would end their exile in Hel to help them rebuild.
Munin went on and on, citing wind chill factors from CNN until Baldr put an end to his chatter. “Thank you, Munin,” he said. “Most thorough. My father is lucky to have your counsel.” He turned his gray eyes to me. “And you, Hugin, what will you tell Odin when next you see him?”
As if you didn’t know, I almost said. But being Odin’s agent has taught me to reflect before I speak. I’d play along for now. “I can tell you of two brothers,” I said. “Like you and Höd, two sons of Odin.” And there, in a vast dry hall situated at the center of Hel, with the sibyl worrying her twig, I told Baldr about an attempt to end the world.
Munin and I had watched the godling sons of Odin sail for many days and nights before they came to an island between worlds. As they neared the shore, Vidar threw the anchor over, jumped out and waded toward the beach. He was much like his father, lean and rangy with a voice that rarely rose above a dry whisper.
Vali was different. Forever a toddler, he scrambled over the gunwale and belly-flopped into the waves, thrashed about as he realized his feet couldn’t touch the stony sea bottom, then gave a mighty kick that sent him flying through the air and onto the beach.
“Did you see?” he said, delighted. “I almost drowned!”
Vidar brushed sand off his half-brother’s bottom. “I saw.”
“I could have been killed!”
“Yes, you came perilously close to an untimely demise. Please follow, Vali. We have a task.”
The beach sloped up sharply from the tide toward a towering wall of jagged basalt. The gods began to hike up the rise.
“Vidar, I’m hungry.”
“Possibly because you didn’t eat your supper?”
“Dried fish. I hate dried fish. I hate all fish.”
“If I give you a piece of candy, will you be quiet?”
Vidar sighed and gave him a piece of candy anyway. All the gods in Asgard knew it was easier if you didn’t anger Vali.
They reached the rock wall and began to climb.
“Vidar, tell me a story.”
“Now is not the best time.”
Vali pouted. “You better tell me a story, or I’ll rip open your tummy and pull all the tubes out, and then I’ll choke you with the tubes, and then I’ll make you eat the tubes, and then I’ll — ”
Vidar closed his eyes. “Once upon a time there was — ”
“There was a god named Baldr,” Vali cut in. “And Frigg, his momma, loved him, and everybody loved him, and he was always very nice. So Frigg got everything in the world to make a promise — all the animals and flowers and birds and everything — she asked everything to promise to never, ever, ever hurt Baldr.”
A gust of wind picked up an unpleasant scent. Fur. Damp animal fur. Vidar continued the tale. “As you said, Vali, Mother Frigg exacted an oath from fire and water and metal and stones, and from earth and trees and beasts, from ailments and birds and poisons and serpents. She wrung promises from every conceivable thing that it would do Baldr no harm. All except a young plant growing on the very skirts of Asgard, a small sprig of mistletoe. She felt it too small to be of any consequence.”
Vali’s grip slipped and he tumbled until a rock broke his fall. Vidar climbed down and retrieved him. “We don’t have time for this. Climb on my back.” They renewed the ascent, Vali riding piggyback.
“And so a game arose around Baldr’s invulnerability,” said Vidar. “He would stand at the highseat during assemblies, and the Aesir would hurl objects at him. Stones, spears, cauldrons of boiling water, wasp nests — all bounced off him and did no harm.”
“But then Loki got all mad!” interrupted Vali. “And he put on ladies’ clothes and tricked Frigg into telling him about the mistletoe. And there was Höd, and he was blind, and he couldn’t play along, and Loki said, ‘How come you’re not playing?’ And Höd said, ‘I’m blind! They won’t let me play.’ And Loki said, ‘That’s not fair.’ And he gave Höd the mistletoe and said, ‘Throw it! Throw it!’ And Höd goes, ‘I’m blind! I can’t aim good.’ But Loki helped him throw, and…and….”
“Catch your breath, brother. And try not to choke me.”
Vidar crested the wall and peered over the summit. In the center of the island loomed a great, dark shape. The son of Odin swallowed and began his descent down the other side of the wall. Vali leaped off his back and scrambled after him.
“I said it’s your turn, Vidar.”
Vidar’s mouth set in a grim line. “The mistletoe pierced Baldr’s breast,” he said. “And it was…it was horrible. How can I tell you what it was like? You never saw him, brother. The skalds say he was beautiful, but it was more than that. You know how when you look at Thor, he’s like a great dark thunder cloud stepped down from the sky to assume human shape. And Njord, he’s like the sea itself, tidal waves crashing in his eyes. Baldr was like that. Only he personified everything that was…I don’t know, good? Worthwhile?” Vidar paused there, hanging off the side of the rock wall, his face haunted. Even Vali took notice and preserved the silence. Then, finally, Vidar said, “He died. Right there in front of all of us. You could almost see the world change color. Nobody knew what to say or what to do. And the next day, we put him in his ship and sent him off to Hel. That’s the last any of us saw of him. And ever since, we’ve been living out the sibyl’s prophecy. We, the great and mighty Aesir. Puppets.”
Something at the foot of the wall made a noise. A low growl, a clank of metal.
“Come on,” said Vidar. “Let’s cut some strings.” They jumped the rest of the way, a twenty-foot drop. Vidar drew his sword and led the way to a shadowy, massive form chained to a boulder. It turned its blue, liquid eyes to the brothers and watched them approach.
“But you didn’t tell the good part of the story,” Vali wailed. “The part when All-Father Odin got mad at Höd for killing Baldr, because he loved Baldr best of anybody, so he and my momma had me, and when I was just one day old I jumped on Höd’s chest and I put my arms around his throat and squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, and then he was dead and he had to go to Hel, too. You didn’t tell that part.”
“You told it very well, Vali. Now let’s finish our job.”
“Was she pretty?”
“Was who pretty?”
“My momma. Was she pretty?”
“Vali, she was a giant.”
Vali stopped walking, his lip curling into a snarl.
Vidar sighed. “All right. All right. Words are insufficient to describe her gigantic beauty. She was the most lovely giantess that ever was. Yes? Will that do?”
That satisfied Vali. The little god squared his shoulders, puffed out his chest, and took the lead toward the monster at the center of the island.
Viewed head-on, the wolf was merely the size of an adult grizzly bear. But if you squinted just so and looked at it through the corner of your eye, it was larger. Larger than the island that contained it, large enough to dwarf the mountains, to swallow the sun and the moon.
Vidar put a hand on his brother’s shoulder, holding him firm. “This is Fenrir Lokisson, the wolf. He and I are destined to do battle at Ragnarök. And I will kill him. But not before he destroys the sky.”
The wolf’s jaws were propped open by a sword, and its legs were bound by a silky ribbon connected by a chain to a boulder.
Vidar raised his sword high in the air. The wolf stared at him placidly, his slow breaths sending clouds of steam into the gloom.
The ribbon binding him was made of six true things, from the roots of a mountain, to the breath of a fish.
But Vidar’s sword was made of seven.
He brought the sword down, parting the air with a thunderclap and sending up a shower of sparks as the blade cut through the chain. Then, gently, he sliced through the ribbon, removed the sword gag from the wolf’s mouth, and Fenrir was free.
“Kill him!” screamed Vali. “Give me the sword!” The child god lunged at the wolf, but Vidar grabbed him by the arms, restraining him.
Fenrir bowed his great back, stretched his forelegs out and yawned. He shook dust from his tail, then turned to Vidar. His mouth formed something of a smile. “That was unexpected. Why set me loose?”
Vidar shrugged. “We’re tired of sitting around waiting for Ragnarök to happen.”
“Ah,” said the wolf. “I think I get it. Why wait for the fulfillment of the prophecy when you can ignite it yourself? Hasten the destruction of a few billion men, trolls, elves, giants, gods, horses, dogs, what have you. Usher in a sea of blood and fire and pain the likes of which not even Odin can fully imagine. Just so you and your brother and the other little godlings can step out of the wings and take charge of the remains now. A plot worthy of Loki.”
“Actually,” said Vidar, “I was just anxious to get to the part of the story where I kill you.”
“I’ll see you later, then,” said Fenrir with a laugh. He leapt into the sky, momentarily eclipsing the moon, before vanishing into the dark.
The gods started back to the boat, and Munin and I circled overhead for a time, watching them.
“Well,” I said to Munin. “What do you think about that?”
He flapped his wings twice to gain altitude. “Thinking’s your department.”
With the shadows deepening in Baldr’s hall, Höd picked at the scant remains of the pig on his platter and shook his head. “It seems entirely unacceptable to me that a psychopathic little toddler is due to inherit the world after the Great Battle.”
“Is that an objective opinion?” I asked. “That has nothing to do with the fact that Vali slew you?”
“It has everything to do with the fact that he slew me! If I wrung your feathered neck today, would you want to sit in council with me tomorrow? What kind of working relationship would that be?”
I turned to Baldr. “Maybe you could answer that question. What do you make of it when Aesir try to bring about the end of one world, just so they can hurry up and start ruling over the next?” I so badly wanted Baldr to say he found it reprehensible. I wanted him to be angry with the young gods. I wanted him to tell me he wasn’t like them at all.
He regarded me with an almost cynical smile. On his face, it was a sad thing to see. “Those gods are Odin’s progeny. The same as Thor or Höd or myself. They’re doing what we’re all doing, what we’ve done for thousands of years — playing their role in this hideous prophecy. Only they realized it was possible to accelerate the process. I admire their initiative. It’s something we’ve lacked for too long.”
My feathers bristled. “They should be patient,” I argued. “All they have to do is wait and they’ll get what they want. Let things happen in the way they were meant to happen. The world ends, the gods and monsters fight, and the young gods inherit a new earth. They don’t appreciate what a privilege that will be, to rule over something new and fresh and green. They don’t appreciate what an honor that is.” And now I looked hard into Baldr’s gray eyes. “It’s wrong to interfere with the prophecy.”
The corners of Baldr’s mouth curved up in a small smile. Folding his ice-white hands on the table before him, he said, “What do you do, Hugin?”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and cocked my head sideways. “What do you mean?”
“I mean what do you do? You fly around and watch and analyze and calculate, and you whisper intelligence in Odin’s ear. But do you actually do anything?” The hall had grown colder by many degrees as Baldr spoke. “Why do you judge those who have the courage to act, when you, Thought, have only the courage to think?”
Before I could devise a response, he turned his attention away from me and spoke to Munin. “Do you remember my funeral?”
“Of course. I’m Memory. I remember everything. Odin came with his Valkyries, and Frey came in a chariot drawn by a boar, and Freyja was there with her cats. Her dress was very pretty. And there were the trolls and elves, the mountain-giants and frost-giants. Everyone showed up. The Aesir wept. Thor kept blowing his nose, and it made a great schnoork sound that shook the leaves from the trees.”
Leave it to Munin to remember the thunder of Thor clearing his nostrils. I remembered something else.
Odin the All-Father frightened me. In the dark hole left behind by his sacrificed eye, I saw his fear. He remembered the sibyl’s prophecy from so long ago. She’d told him that Baldr would die, that his death would be the first step towards the doom of everything Odin had ever known. He’d always hoped that somehow the sibyl would be wrong. Sometimes witch babble is just witch babble. But now there was the shocking white corpse of Baldr, whom Odin loved not in the way a war god loves a warrior, but in the way a father loves a son.
That day, everything started to die.
I thought about some of the things Munin and I had seen recently. The world-spanning Serpent who churned the waters, brewing tidal waves and hurricanes. Thor’s son, Modi, had loosed him a week ago. And there was the Ship of Dead Men’s Nails, freed of its moorings by the young god, Magni. I thought of the bloodbath Midgard was becoming, with people killing each other over a can of ravioli. All the portents were coming true.
Bent over her twig, the sibyl muttered softly to herself. “And the serpent rises, and children drown in its wake, and the blood-beaked eagle rends corpses, screaming. Ragnarök, doom of the gods, doom of all. Battle-axe and sword rule, and an age of wolves, till the world goes down.”
She spat upon the twig, and now it wasn’t a twig at all, but a spear with smoking runes burned down its side. I didn’t recognize them. She put the spear in Höd’s hands.
Baldr nodded. “Tell me what Odin did at my funeral, Munin.” He wasn’t looking at Munin. He was looking at me.
“He laid the gold ring Draupnir on your chest,” Munin said. “And then he knelt at your side, brushed the hair off your forehead, just like he used to do when you were a boy. He whispered something in your ear.”
“What did he whisper?”
Munin opened his beak, paused, shut it. He looked at me, and I shrugged. I didn’t know either. On that awful day, Odin used his cunning and spoke in a voice not even I could hear.
The sibyl snorted. “I know what he said. I’m the one who gave him the words. And he had to say them, too. Didn’t want to, but he had to. No choice. That was my price for giving him a heads-up about the future.”
“Tell the ravens, please,” said Baldr.
“This: The sibyl’s magic can give you true death.”
Baldr stood at the head of the table. “Now, Höd,” he said.
“Wait,” I squawked. “You’re not really going to do this.”
Stupid, stupid bird. Baldr wasn’t working with Vidar and Vali. He wasn’t interested in freeing monsters. He wasn’t trying to accelerate Ragnarök and end his days in Hel.
With a slight shudder, Höd rose to his feet. He fingered the mistletoe spear. “I don’t want to do this,” he said. “Not again. It’s not fair. The prophecy says we get to live! That’s what’s supposed to happen. Not this.”
Baldr’s face darkened. “I thought we were agreed. Who are we to build a new world on the corpses of others?”
After a very long moment, Höd lifted the spear over his shoulder. He sighed. “I just…I just want to say thanks. For not ever being mad at me. Everybody else hated me for killing you. But you always treated me like a brother.”
“It’s alright,” said Baldr. “You are my brother.”
“This has all been for my benefit,” I said to Baldr. “Mine and Munin’s. That’s why you sent for us. That’s what this whole thing has been about.”
Baldr nodded. “I wanted Odin to know what happened here tonight. I wanted him to know why I did it. I was always the first link in the chain. The most important link. Remove me, and the chain shatters. Send me to a true death, end my existence.” Baldr closed his eyes. “Munin can tell Odin of my deed. But you, Hugin, you have to tell him…I don’t know. You’ll think of the right thing to tell him.”
“I could tell him something right now,” I said. “He’d never allow this. And if I don’t stop to observe the world as I fly I can be at his side before Höd lifts a finger.”
“I know you can,” said Baldr. “It would be very easy for you to do that.”
I felt a tightness in my throat.
How often do you see a god defy the universe to save a world? How often do you realize that you can let it happen, or you can stop it? And how long do you have to think about it before you figure out the right thing to do?
Höd pulled the spear back a little farther and took a deep breath.
I took a deep breath, too.
“Your aim’s too far right,” I told him. “A little left. A little more. There.”
Baldr smiled at me, this time with some of his old magic, and the hall seemed to warm, and I basked in him.
“Hey, wait!” said Munin. He was just now figuring it out. “Can they do this?”
I shushed him. “I think it’ll be alright.”
And Baldr stood there, his arms stretched out to his sides. And when the rune-burned mistletoe spear punched through his chest, he was laughing.
The world changed color again.
Munin and I left them there, Höd staring blindly at his hands, the sibyl reading her magazines. And Baldr, not just exiled from the living, but truly and finally dead.
Later, after the long flight home, when we perched on Odin’s shoulder and he asked us what we’d seen and heard, Munin told him everything in detail from his perfect memory. He told him of the break in the leaden clouds and the melting of the snow. He told him how we saw the great Fenrir wolf slink back to his rock, frightened for the first time of an unknown future.
And me, Hugin, Thought, I told him that he had better start making some plans.
Because Baldr had given us a whole new tomorrow.
And today, anything was possible.
Ideomancer Featured Author Tim Pratt answers a few questions from fellow writer Greg van Eekhout.
Greg van Eekhout : You wear a bunch of different hats related to the creation of fantastic literature. How about giving us a quick rundown of your various endeavors?
Tim Pratt : Where to begin? Fiction writing, of course, is supposed to be first and foremost, though in practice it often gets shoved aside in favor of other endeavors that have deadlines attached. I also write poetry, though not as much as I used to — I’m trying to concentrate on fiction since it’s at least possible (if not likely) to make a bit of money doing that. For my day job I work for Locus as an Assistant Editor, which means I sweep, clean out the gutters, carry heavy boxes, etc. (all true!) — in terms of actual work on the magazine, I do a lot of the layout, some of the news stories, many of the obituaries. I’ve been there for two years now, and I’ve been getting more and more writing responsibilities. I also review books for Locus; mostly horror, sometimes poetry collections, occasionally first novels, sometimes books with genre elements that aren’t marketed as genre. I try to catch the stuff that might otherwise slip through the cracks. Every once in a while I write reviews for other publications, like Strange Horizons, usually when there’s a book I want to spend more than 500 words talking about. I edit Star*Line, the journal of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, which comes out 6 times a year — that’s great fun, and keeps me involved in the poetry world. My fiancée Heather Shaw and I just started a slipstream ‘zine called Flytrap, which should debut this fall. We’re taking turns on the editing. For issue one, she chose the fiction, and I chose the poetry (though we consulted with one another a bit, naturally). For issue two we’ll switch roles, and so on from there. Oh, and Heather and I do a holiday chapbook every winter, with a collaboration and some original work from each of us. We send them to friends and family as gifts, and sell the ones we have left after that. That’s about it, I think, and I’ve made myself a solemn promise not to take on any more responsibilities for a while! Though if some really fun opportunity came along…. I guess that wasn’t a quick rundown, but it was comprehensive!
GV : You’ve described yourself as a writer of mythic fiction. What do you mean by that? Is mythic fiction something different from the commercial genre we call fantasy?
TP : I say that I write “mythic fiction” because I’m not above stealing from my betters. Charles de Lint coined the term (as far as I know, anyway) to describe his own work, which has variously been called “contemporary fantasy,” “urban fantasy,” “North American magic realism,” etc. The problem is this: if you tell an average person that you write fantasy, in all likelihood they think elves, quests, kitchen-boys-with-destinies, magic rings, a faux-medieval setting, all that Big Fat Fantasy, secondary world stuff. I’ve read and enjoyed some of that sort of thing, but it’s not what I write.
Almost all my fiction is set in a recognizably real contemporary world into which magic intrudes, or in which magic exists hidden from the majority of the population. Is it “urban fantasy”? Well, not the ones that are set in rural North Carolina. Is it “contemporary fantasy”? Sure, but that’s a bit unwieldy and certainly inelegant. I prefer “mythic fiction” — I think there’s some poetry to the term, and it has enough assonance to sound like a contrast to “literary fiction” (which it is). And I do draw on the old myths (and folklore, and legends — those terms aren’t synonymous! They’re three different things!), and try to find elements that resonate with my contemporary characters. Like most “literary fiction” my stories are predominantly concerned with human relationships, and with Faulkner’s famous “human heart in conflict with itself.” The magical elements exist in order to highlight certain aspects of those characters or their situations. The magical elements also exist because I think they’re cool, and I’d rather read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing deity having an affair with a young nymph than read a story about an aging, pot-bellied, self-loathing English professor having an affair with a young student, even if both stories are about roughly the same themes.
Of course, if I tell people I write “mythic fiction” they just look at me blankly, but at least they don’t come into the conversation with a lot of preconceptions.
GV : You recently attended the Rio Hondo writers’ workshop. Talk to us a little about what Rio Hondo is and what you took from your experiences there.
TP : Rio Hondo is a week-long professional writing workshop, not unlike fabled Sycamore Hill — though Rio Hondo has fewer participants, more naps, and better food, or so I’m told. Walter Jon Williams and Leslie What run it, and they kindly invited me to attend this year. The workshop takes place in June, in Taos Ski Valley, New Mexico, about 10,000 feet about sea level. Each of the twelve participants brought a story, and each morning we critiqued two, the usual go-around-the-table-and-comment sort of style. Afternoons were for naps (which are necessary when you’re up that high!) and hiking and writing and reading and whatnot. Every evening we had a gourmet meal, prepared by various particpants. I didn’t cook, but I did act as sou-chef one night, and minced garlic and so forth. The most striking image of the workshop was seeing Walter Jon Williams tenderize a leg of lamb by beating it vigorously with a full bottle of wine. After dinner each night we drank, played cards, chatted, watched bizarre movies (Crazy Safari! Mr. Vampire!), and argued about writing, probability theory, free will vs. determinism — the usual.
It was a rather remarkable experience, actually, sitting around a table with writers I’ve been reading for years, people I consider brilliant – Nina Kiriki Hoffman, Ray Vukcevich, Maureen McHugh, and on and on, and being included among bright new lights like Daniel Abraham, Ken Wharton, and Susan Fry. I had many wonderful conversations, got marvelous feedback on a new story, made some friends, and ate more fine meals in a week than I’d had in the year previous. I hope I can go again sometime. Best workshop ever, since there was no doubt whatsoever that each participant had the chops to back up their criticisms.
GV : Okay, let’s talk about your proclivities and idiosyncrasies. When you sit down to write, do you have to wear a special hat? Begin with seventeen push-ups? Wait for the chimes of midnight? Eat a soft-boiled egg? Where, when, and how do you do your best writing?
TP : See, here’s where I’m boring. I’ve always had a certain admiration for writers who bring a little sympathetic or contagious magic into the writing process, but I’m not one of them. I write wherever — on subway trains, in coffee shops, at the kitchen table, at the keyboard, on the deck at work during my lunch breaks. I don’t use fancy notebooks or special pens. I pretty much just sit down, try not to succumb to the many shiny distractions in my life, and start writing.
That said, I probably do my best work early in the morning. When I can get into a good routine of rising early and writing a few pages every day, I’m very productive. Of course, life sometimes intervenes to make that impossible, in which case I just squeeze writing time in wherever possible.
I enjoy writing in coffee shops, because there are lots of yummy things to drink, I don’t have to wash dishes, and there is often pie.
GV : Do you remember the first story you wrote?
TP : For years I always told people I wrote my first story in fourth grade. It was called “The Weirdo Zone” and I thought it was a novel, though it was only about 25 pages in a bright yellow wide-ruled notebook, along with various crude illustrations (“crude” being the height of my artistic talents to this day), mostly of bipedal alligators and a human head with spider legs. The plot was stolen in equal measure from Judy Blume’s Superfudge and from an episode of The Muppet Babies. I actually remember working on that story, sort of, and I still have the notebook. It was about a bratty little kid who gets abducted into an alternate dimension, and his long-suffering older brother who goes to save him, with Hilarious Results.
Then, a couple of years ago, my mother showed me a story I’d written when I was 8 years old, in third grade, that had actually been “published” in a county-school creative writing competition. It was called “A Day in the Life of a Spider.” It was about a pet spider that escapes from his terrarium and has Wacky Adventures. From textual evidence, I’d say I stole most of the plot from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I don’t remember writing it at all, but there it is. Anything earlier has disappeared into the mental mists of antiquity.
GV : Okay, when you’re a hale and hearty man in his late nineties and you look back over a successful career, what have you accomplished?
TP : I’ve crushed my enemies, seen them driven before me, heard the lamentation of their women….
Okay, really, in a perfect dream world, I’ll have a big bookshelf of 70 or 80 published books and filing cabinet full of ‘zines I’ve edited and chapbooks I’ve put together. That’s it, really. Jonathan Carroll has a nice quote, about “writing for the shelf.” Basically, writing isn’t about winning awards, or about book tours, or conventions, or fans, or any of that, because that stuff isn’t going on every time you sit down to write. The important thing, day to day, is the writing itself. Ultimately, you write for the shelf, and whatever else happens, you have that shelf, and the things you wrote, lined up on it. That’s all I need. That’s more than enough.
GV : What’s the latest news on Little Gods, your upcoming short story collection?
TP : Ah, the first book, all my own, for the aforementioned shelf! It’s being published by Prime Books, and should be available at World Fantasy Con, with the official release date in November. I got a look at the finished cover for the hardcover edition recently, and it’s beautiful. The trade paperback will be released simultaneously. The collection has 15 stories and 4 poems, and it’s the best work I’ve done, including a Nebula-nominated story, a story that was in a couple of Year’s Best anthologies last year, and a never-before-published novelette called “Pale Dog,” which is one of the coolest things I’ve ever written. Michaela Roessner provided a wonderful introduction, and I wrote an only-slightly-self-indulgent Afterword/Story Notes thing, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream. I’m immensely proud of this book, and grateful to Sean Wallace at Prime for publishing it. My first book. It stuns me. I just hope it’s the first of many.