Happy Holiday Season to All.
My gift to you is this unsettling little tale for the winter solstice. It draws on the myth of Ragnarok, the ancient Norse vision of the apocalypse.
Happy reading and keep the home fires burning.
by J.D. Horn
We had done the work, Grandmother and I, of felling the trees. She on one end of the crosscut, I on the other, we had gripped the saw’s opposing handles and tugged its blade back and forth between us, forcing its teeth to chew through bark and heartwood and pith. We had done the work without speaking—our labors playing themselves out to the rhythm of our deepening breaths and the bite of saw—to force ourselves to bear the full, undistracted weight of our own violence.
We harvested only younger trees. Grandmother told me these were chosen not because they were easier to fell, but because it was their elders that held up the sky. After each cutting, Grandmother would kneel beside the tree, placing both hands on the bark, her lips moving in mute prayer. She would rise, and we would move to the next sacrifice, guided by the swing of Grandmother’s pendulum, a shard of cloudy crystal that dangled from a thick silver chain.
We had done the work of stripping branches and sawing trunks to length, of lifting sections and resting them on sawbuck, of sawing lengths into logs, and of splitting unseasoned logs into firewood. We had done the work on summer’s longest day, the day blessed by the sun’s greatest vigor, when the world was green and the air alive, buzzing with bees and sweet from the scent of purple clover and evergreen sap.
Now the world lay white, hushed. This truncated and most transient of days would choose to paint its sky a deep periwinkle and blanch the sun till it glowed the color of the butter Grandmother used to bake her ruiskakut. She had been making the sugary rye flour biscuits for weeks now, filling tin after tin. “You’ll miss me when I’m gone, but it will hurt less in a year’s time. With these you’ll have one sweet remembrance of me each day until then.”
I couldn’t be sure she was my grandmother. There was none of her in my face or form. She never spoke of my parents, never answered my questions, direct or oblique, about them. She encouraged me both expressly and through her taciturnity to cultivate my own images of them, images she never augmented or amended. It was almost if she had never known them, or perhaps had forgotten them. Grandmother forgot things often. She might ask a question two or even three times over. When she caught herself repeating something she’d explained before, she’d pretend that she did so for my benefit, rather than admit the previous telling had slipped her mind.
But she was old, and kind, and strong, and wise. And there were only the two of us.
Yesterday, we had let the fire in the hearth die down, as the hearth must be cleaned before tonight’s vigil. The gross remains of old fires we had collected and added to compost, the fine ash we’d swept up and set aside to be boiled for lye. We passed the night huddled together in the kitchen, wrapped in blankets, lying on the thin mattress we’d pulled earlier into the room. Grandmother had closed the kitchen door to help hold the heat emanating from the stove.
Long before dawn, Grandmother woke me with a gentle shake. I opened my eyes to find the moon, a day short of its absolute fullness and as bright as any lamp, shining in through the window. Grandmother still lay beside me, though she’d propped herself up on her elbow. “Where do the wolves hide?” she said, asking me for what might have been the hundredth time the first in a series of questions she, either through intent or absentmindedness, had collected into a catechism.
“On the horizon.” I said, rubbing sleep from my eyes.
She nodded her approval, then went on to the question I knew would come next. “And why do they hide?”
“They are lying in wait, preparing to attack him.”
“To fall on him.” Her voice quavered with dread “To rip him to shreds,” she said, her upset and volume rising with each word, “with tooth and claw. To swallow large chunks of him to feed their darkness.” Her body tensed. Her breaths grew ragged, each warm exhalation buffeting me. I lay there, uncertain, quiet. Afraid for her. Afraid of her, or at least of the ferocity of her words. “It is our work,” she said, her hand still grasping my shoulder, its grip tightening until I wanted to cry out, “only our work, that can protect the Bringer of Light in his weakened state.”
I felt the tension drain from her body as surely as if it were leaving my own. She traced a finger down my cheek. “Come now. We’ll breakfast when we’ve done.”
We rose and bound wood and rawhide snowshoes to our feet. The hours between dawn and dusk would be few today.
We crossed the field in blue moonlight, making our way toward the tree line in a straight, if stumbling, path. We paused at the first of the five stone altars that stood at equal distances apart along the radius of the great field. Six great fires would be lit at twilight, these five secondary altars and the chief altar which was our hearth. Six fires would be lit, for six is the number of the sun.
“The wolves,” she said. “Speak their names.” Never before had she asked me to do this. “Speak their names,” she repeated the words now a firm command, then continued “so the moon may hear their names on your lips.” By the moon’s cold light, she read the confusion on my face. “There is power in the naming.”
I had never before said their names aloud. To my knowledge, Grandmother had only ever done so in whispers.
“Skoll,” I said, and she nodded to encourage me. “Whose name means ‘treachery.’” In the distance, in the night, I sensed the pricking up of his ears.
“The One Who Mocks,” Grandmother added the familiar epithet when I failed to do so.
I licked my lips. “Hati, whose name means ‘enemy.’”
“The One Who Hates.” She drew close and whispered, her breath warm on my ear. “And here is their secret…”
She had never spoken before of a secret.
She hesitated, waiting, it seemed, to give me a moment to prepare myself. “The two,” she said, her voice low, confiding, “are one. And the one is a man. A man who mocks and hates and who lusts to drown all light in the darkness of his heart.”
She began scraping off the snow that blanketed the altar’s flat, rectangular top, signaling me with the action that it was time to prepare the altars for tonight’s vigil.
“When will you light the hearth fire?” she quizzed me as we worked.
“When the horizon reddens with his blood.”
With the altar’s top cleared, I moved the firewood we’d stored beneath the altar up to its surface, arranging the fuel into a pyramid with the longer, larger logs supporting the shorter, thinner ones.
“The five altars aren’t wards,” she said. “They won’t keep the wolves away, but they will slow them down. For us, every moment of their delay is precious.” Grandmother batted her gloved hands together as she examined my handiwork. “How long must the hearth fire burn?”
“Through the night, till he regains the strength to rise in the sky.”
She made an adjustment to one of the upper logs, squaring it with the others. “They will try to put an end to our magic. They will seek out the heart of fire that burns in our hearth, hoping to extinguish it and leave the Bringer of Light defenseless. But the One Who Mocks is foolish.” I took note that Grandmother used Skoll’s epithet to speak of him. Perhaps she felt it unwise to say his name a second time, or perhaps she wanted the power of the naming to be mine alone. “The five visible pyres will confuse him, and he will lope about, moving from one to the other, snapping at their flames. Only after the five have been extinguished will he realize we have cheated him.”
“But the One Who Hates,” I whispered, following Grandmother’s example, though still fearing to speak of the cruelest of the two either by name or by description, “is not foolish.”
“No, but the beast is greedy. His avarice will prevent him from passing by the light of these altars and force him to snuff them out one by one before approaching our hearth.”
We carried on toward the forest, outward along the array of altars, removing snow and stacking wood. As we worked, I trained my ears on the woods, listening for shifting brush or stealthy padding of paw. The moon had heard me speak wolves’ names, and the quickening of my pulse told me that so had Skoll and Hati.
We arrived at the tree line and, as the sky above us lightened, began to circle clockwise along the field’s periphery. Grandmother carried stones in her right pocket, and removed one, dropping it to the ground each time we passed our footprints that marked the radius.
As we walked, Grandmother told me stories of other places beyond the horizon, places she’d seen when young, where light glinted off glass towers that grew from ground as hard as rock. Where light scintillated on blue sea as her feet crushed the sand beneath them. I asked Grandmother about these places. Where they were. Who she had been in them. She shook her head, saying that she couldn’t remember, but she knew that our tall white house stood at the center of our field, and that our field lay at the center of all.
Out of reverence rather than need, she shaded her eyes with her hand then glanced up at the sun, weighing the work we had yet to do by the time left us. “Come now,” she said, the first note of urgency creeping into the command.
I couldn’t remember the time before I came to this house, tall and square, white but not the blue-green white of snow. Sometimes I tried to imagine it as if seeing it from above, standing as it did at the center of the great field that lay almost entirely surrounded by a curtain of elder trees. I envisioned the two clear paths—arteries by which the morning beams of the summer solstice and fading light of its winter converse reached us—cutting through the forest and stretching to the horizon.
The house’s roof now lay hidden beneath the snow, camouflaged against the whiteness covering the great field, with only the stone chimney rising from its heart to give it away. I tried to imagine myself, inside the great white house with its snow-covered roof and its telltale stone chimney, standing at the center of the snowy, tree-bounded field. I tried to imagine myself, inside this house, imagining it as if I were seeing it from above.
That was how it felt to try to remember the time before I came to this house.
At zenith, we repeated the ritual procession. This time I carried the six stones, dropping them to mark our progress.
In the hour before twilight, I’d make the walk alone. I would follow the path of the five altars, lighting each as I passed, then circle our field. I would make the walk alone, because by then, Grandmother would be gone.
We closed the sixth circle, then, after retrieving the counting stones, retraced our steps across the field to the house. I made a game of trying to plant my feet in the prints I had left earlier as Grandmother trailed behind. I looked back to find her struggling, her shoulders drooping, her back bent lower than ever before. I ran to her as quickly as the snowshoes allowed me to move. I took her arm and matched my pace to hers.
Grandmother stopped at the door and produced the pendulum from her pocket. “Take it,” she said, offering the pendulum to me. I hesitated, and she thrust it at me once more. When I didn’t react, she took hold of my hand, first snatching off my glove, then snaking the pendulum’s silver chain through my fingers. “It all belongs to you now— the tools, the choice, and the task of protecting and teaching those who will come after.”
I lowered my eyes, fixing them on the snowshoes’ bindings. She traced a gnarled finger down my cold-numbed nose, then lifted my chin. She studied my face, her eyes that mirrored the violet blue of the sky overhead left untouched by the counterfeit smile on her lips.
The day was still and crystalline. The upper branches of elder trees that would sway and bow as wind strained through them remained motionless. Even so, the chimes suspended from the door’s overhang began to tinkle, as if joggled by an unseen hand. Grandmother’s eyes drifted up, and she nodded. “The spirits of the air,” she said, “they’re awaiting me.” My heart sank as I realized it wasn’t the tasks still at hand that concerned her. It was the timing of her own imminent departure. She gave me a conspiratorial glance through narrowed eyes. “They can wait a little while longer.”
I knelt before her and undid the snowshoes’ fasteners, first hers, then my own. We leaned them against the house, and she opened the door, stomping the snow from her boots before entering, encouraging me by example to do the same. I stuffed the pendulum into my pocket and followed her over the threshold, shutting the door behind me.
From habit, Grandmother started to slip off her coat to hang it on a hook. She stopped herself, tugging the coat’s belt tighter. “Where do the wolves hide?” I saw the mist of her breath as she spoke. The temperature in the house’s interior hovered at best five or ten degrees above the frozen world from which the house sheltered us.
The rote answer rushed to my lips, but another arrived first. “They hide in the man.”
Grandmother halted, surprised by the disruption of the established litany. Her mouth hung momentarily open, then closed, its edges turning up in a proud smile. She removed her gloves and touched two fingers to my forehead. Her hand lowered to her side. “I’ll make you lunch while you lay the fire.”
There were no established precepts regarding the manner by which the five altars should be lit. It was custom, however, if not law, to ignite the great hearth fire not by match but by striking flint against steel. Grandmother said it was a matter of binding concentration to intention, as focus combined with clarity to strengthen magic.
I lay bits of kindling on the grate, then rested three of the now dry, split logs on the kindling, leaving space for flame to breathe between them. For tinder I readied a nest of dried grasses and placed it beside the steel ring I’d fit over my knuckles and the sharpened flint with which I’d make the ring spark. The flint lay on a strip of char cloth, the cloth cut from a garment I had outgrown. I examined my work a dozen times, then rose and crossed to window, drawn by the dim light filtering through the frost that had etched itself on the glass like a dense plume of feathers. The frost hid the world beyond the window. I pressed my palm against the glass.
“It’s better this way,” Grandmother said, coming up behind me and resting a hand on each of my shoulders.
She fed me broth and thick chunks of seeded rye bread with smoked cheese. She fed me two slices of roll cake and used her own napkin to wipe the heavy almond-infused whipped cream from my chin. She rose and leaned over me, placing a kiss on my forehead. She cleared the table and crossed to the sink, pumping water into the basin. In a low voice she began to sing a song I strained to hear. I didn’t recognize it. She cleaned bowls and plates and utensils, then broke off her song just as I began to learn it.
“Shall I help you light the lamps?”
I responded with tears. She had prepared me that this task would be our last work together, but now that the time had come, I wasn’t prepared. Whenever she spoke of the leaving time, I pretended it was only another of her stories, as improbable as her fantastical towers of glass. I had never truly believed that she could be taken—that she would allow herself to be taken— but the spirits of the wind were waiting for her just beyond the door, and this day, the ritual procession and the preparation of altars had diminished her to a degree a thousand others couldn’t.
She opened a cupboard and took down a box that held what had up to this point been my favorite part of our longest night vigil. She set the box on the table before me and waited, allowing me an opportunity to open the box. I kept my eye on it but crossed my arms over my chest and shook my head, acting as if I might stop everything with my halfhearted show of petulance.
Grandmother pretended to take no notice of my protest. She lifted the lid to expose the box’s contents, a polished brass angel chime. It had been our tradition, for as far back as I could remember to begin the vigil with the chime. She removed it from the box and placed it on the table beside the container, then returned to the cabinet to fetch candles and matches.
Grandmother forced four stubby candles into the holders on the chime’s base. The sharp scent of sulfur cut through the air as Grandmother struck the yellow tip of a fat blue match and lit the chime’s candles. She waited until the heat of the flames drove the chime’s bells to spin and strike the clappers suspended above them before waving out the flame at the tip of the dangerously short matchstick. I tried to focus on the three red stars imprinted on the match box, but soon the chime’s sound and motion had succeeded in enchanting me, just as it had done every year before.
“These tiny nubs will burn out in minutes, of course,” she said, drawing my eyes to her. She crossed to the window and removed the chimney of a paraffin lamp she’d placed on the sill sometime while I was eating my second piece of cake. She struck another match and touched the flame to the lamp’s wick.
Grandmother said, “Have you guessed why we light every lamp this night?”
I shook my head, unable to force the lump from my throat.
“Because the more the great fire is weakened, the more important every single flame. For many years now,” she continued as she returned the lamp’s chimney to its base and turned her focus on me, “the wolves have cowered in the shadows, sure of the great fire’s strength, but they have been emboldened of late, drawing closer two cycles ago, and even nearer the last.”
Grandmother paused, the light in her eyes dimming as if the newly lit flame was feeding from her instead of the paraffin. “I would never leave you. Not if it were my choice. Certainly not in these days.” She drew a deep breath and pulled back her shoulders. “They will stop at nothing, but you mustn’t fear them. You must resist them at every step. That is why we light every lamp.”
As we did the work, Grandmother picked up her tune again, singing softly. I strained to hear her quiet voice, to make out the words I might have disregarded if spoken aloud. It struck me that she was composing her song even as she sang it. I wanted to interrupt, to ask her to share it with me, but I realized by doing so I might prevent her from ever finishing it.
We passed from room to room together, lighting the wick of each lamp until the house glowed from within. Light coming from above and from each side touched me, each casting its own version of my shadow.
The chimes at our door rang out again, louder and more insistent that before. The wind, up until now still, picked up and began to buffet the house. Her eyes fixed on my face, as if she were trying to commit my features to memory. Her lips pulled into a thin smile. She placed the box of matches in my hand. “It’s time,” she said, turning quickly on her heel and marching to the front door. She stopped with a hand on the knob, glancing back. “You must know I’ve always loved you.” She opened the door and stepped over the threshold. She pulled the door to.
Forgetting the opaqueness of the frost, I rushed to the window, nearly knocking over a beggarly lamp with a square red base and mismatched scalloped green chimney Grandmother had left burning on the sill. I ran to the door and flung it open, stumbling out into the snow and following the print of her boots to where they stopped. I turned, looking out across the field, looking up into the sky, but the winds had abated, and Grandmother was no more.
I plodded across the field, my boots sinking deep into the snow, and the snow clinging to my pant legs, until I reached the first altar. I placed my bare palms on its top, touching it to make sure the world was real.
I returned to the house, to the kitchen, dropped the matches on the table, then pulled my chair near the stove. I sat, watching the steam rise from my drying pantlegs, and tried to remember Grandmother’s song.
I startled awake, the emaciated, gray light of the room telling me it was closing in on twilight. My pulse pounded in my neck as I jumped up and snatched the box of matches from the table and the blue metal can filled with paraffin from the cupboard. I shoved the matches into my pocket, the box pressing into the counting stones to remind me of the full task before me. I ran from the kitchen through the front room to the door. All around me glowed the lamps that grandmother had lit, each speaking to my shame. I opened the door and went out, pulling the door to with a bang, taking out my fear and shame on it. I reached down for my snowshoes, still propped up, next to Grandmother’s, against the wall. I strapped them on, using careless knots to fix the bindings.
I tramped ahead, lifting my knees high and stretching my steps to my maximum stride. The paraffin sloshed about in its can as I made my way to the first altar. My sweat freezing, I gasped in the icy air. I twisted off the paraffin’s lid and sloshed some of the fuel onto the logs. I set the can by my feet and dug in my pocket for the matches. I pulled out a match and struck it against the stone. Its tip flared to life, and I tossed it on the logs. The wood caught flame with a roar, one that seemed to urge me on. I didn’t bother with the paraffin can’s lid. I grabbed hold of its handle and carried on down the line, repeating my steps at each.
One match failed at the third altar. Another at the fifth. Only one match remained, and I took it from the box and struck it against the stone. The match snapped, unlit, its flammable tip falling to the snow. I turned, looking back to the house, calculating, weighing the time I would lose by returning for more matches against the long shadows tracing themselves across the field. My eyes worked their way backward from the house to the farthest altar to the one closest to me.
I worked my way back to the nearest altar and thrust my hand into the fire to catch hold of one of the upper logs. My exposed flesh was at first so cold that I didn’t feel the heat, but soon the flames from the logs beneath began to sear my fingers. I cried out, nearly dropping the burning log, but I yanked it back sharply and, holding it by the thumb’s length untouched by fire, moved, nearly leaping to the final altar. I lay the burning log at the base of the pyramid and doused the whole of it with the remaining paraffin. I heard the fire catch hold but didn’t take the time to watch it. I put all my focus on reaching the tree line, on completing the six circles and returning to light the great fire in the hearth.
Two colossal beasts, their gray pelts bristling, darted out from the trees. They surged at me, snarling and snapping, then fell back, but not before taking my measure and considering the work I had before me. The wolves turned and rushed toward the horizon. As they moved deeper into the trees, one howled, a joyous ecstatic sound that caused even the elder trees to tremble.
I started running or as close to running as snow and the woven frames laced to my boots would allow. My breath came quick and hard as I began the procession, trying not to focus on the glee I’d witnessed glinting in the wolves’ eyes or the deepening shadows. One stone, two stones, three stones, four stones fell, then the lacing of my right snowshoe snapped. A sharp bite of pain shot up my leg as my ankle flipped to the side. I fell, toppling forward into the snow.
I braced myself with my hands, willing myself to rise, but for the moment unable to stop the dizzying nausea that had overtaken me. I lay there on my stomach, panting. Beyond the tree line, the second wolf howled. As the first joined his brother, their howling came together, blending and changing until they were no longer two, until they were no longer howls. A delighted, sadistic laugh, a man’s laugh, reached out from the forest to nip at my ears.
I forced my body to roll over. I sat up, pulling in my leg and rolling up my pantleg, so I could examine my throbbing ankle. Despite the cold, it had swollen to almost twice the size of the left. Somehow, I managed to stand. The ankle wasn’t broken, and I began to limp forward, one snowshoe missing, trying not to put too much weight on my ankle, trying not to cry out when I did.
I tried to sing Grandmother’s song, the new one. I didn’t know the words beyond the few I’d managed to catch, so I began making up my own. Ones that seemed to fit, even if they hadn’t been planned to. I sang the song a dozen times as I made the fifth circle.
Beginning the sixth, I caught site of the Bringer of Light at the end path that opened onto the horizon. The sky between it and the land already shone a brilliant red. Hati and Skoll, emboldened by my failing, had already begun their attack. I cried at first in silence, then in loud gasping wails as I worked my way at the pace of winter itself around the final circle.
The Bringer of Light had almost slipped entirely from the world, its last rays tracing along the path of the five altars to touch the cold, dark hearth at the heart of the house. I could feel the Bringer’s surprise, the sense of betrayal that pushed it down, perhaps for the last time, into darkness.
Deserving of my own pain, I made my way toward the fifth altar. From behind me I felt something like a great rush of wind push past, halving and circling me twice as it did. The fifth altar fell dark, as if its light had been swallowed whole. I rushed forward to reach the fourth… Its light, too, died in an instant, the instant before I arrived.
I pushed ahead, intent on lighting the great fire in the hearth before these lesser fires were all consumed, but the third altar went dark as I drew near. The wolves were playing with me, so sure they were that I had failed. With the light of the five altars consumed and the hearth cold, they would turn and race back, jumping over the horizon to devour the Bringer.
The second altar. The first. The brush of rough fur and the reek of hot breath as the wolves bounded away. I stood there, only feet from the house, weaving back and forth, willing myself to die before having to witness the fruit of my failure.
Just as it had been born, the world would die in darkness and in ice.
A movement—the door of the house easing open—caught my eye. A faint flicker of light escaped the house, drawing me near, leading me limping to the threshold. The light, as dim as it was, kindled a spark of hope in my heart.
That spark went dark at the sound of his laugh.
His skin so pale it shone blue, his eyes like blank white marbles, he stood triumphant, if skeletal, before the cold hearth. All around us, the lamps Grandmother had lit were guttering out, slowly, one by one as he relished his victory, until only the last one, the tiny jury-rigged lamp Grandmother had placed on the window sill, still burned. I grasped it, holding it to my heart, determined to give up my life to protect this final spark. But then the words of Grandmother’s song, the words I hadn’t quite caught, came to me all at once. The wolves and the man are one. All else illusion born of the dark. Beyond the shadow waits the heart of fire, awaiting it spark.
I reached back and, in a desperate arc, flung the lamp, the last light on earth, directly at the hearth. The lamp passed through the man—he no more than an illusion placed there to dishearten me—and exploded as it hit the logs piled on the grate. With a resounding whoosh the wood burst into flame.
From beyond the horizon came agonized howls that carried with them the stench of burning fur and scorched flesh. I turned and closed the door on the wolves’ suffering.
I fed the blaze throughout the night, until the dawn, a dawn I hadn’t been certain would arrive, brightened the sky. A fragile light filtered in through the window, the thick frost that had covered its panes yesterday now gone.
I hobbled to the window and looked up, laughing and crying at the same time. I started to turn away, to fill the grate once more before collapsing onto my cot, when I noticed a stranger peering back in at me. It took a moment for me to realize how much the stranger resembled the woman I had called Grandmother. It took a bit longer for me to realize the weathered face before me was my own reflection, the sharp blue eyes and silver hair mine.
Like the younger trees Grandmother and I had felled, my days had been consumed as sacrifice. And, like the elder trees, Grandmother had been taken up to join those who came before her, those who together support the dome of the sky. I couldn’t predict the number of cycles I’d pass here alone, in the tall white house, at the center of all, but I knew someday I would hear a knock at the door, and I’d open to find the one who was to follow.