Hi there, folks, this is Sitting Cloud here, your new DJ while Foghorn Fredricksson takes a long break. My husband says I should get out of the house more, so here I am! I’m still getting used to all these controls so bear with me – but these last few weeks have been a learning curve for all of us, haven’t they? Well, I’m pleased to announce the repairs on the Lighthouse are completed – the solar panels have been fitted – and to celebrate there is going to be a disaster relief benefit concert, raising funds and resources for all those affected by the recent crisis, at the Sports Hall, with no less than The Runestone Cowboys playing, featuring my son, Eddy Redcrow! It’s going to be this coming Saturday. Hope you can make it. To get you in the mood, here’s one of their numbers. Now, which damn button is it…?
The sports hall was packed, the atmosphere electric with excitement and relief as Eddy stepped onto the stage with his band. He picked up his guitar, and his bandmates attended to their own instruments – Deep Fried Fred on rhythm, Berserk Bjarki on bass, and Octopus Ollie on drums.
‘Hello Gimli!’ Eddy roared, as he strummed his guitar. ‘It’s good to see you all! We’re the Runestone Cowboys, and I don’t know about you, but we’re here to party!’
The crowd went wild as the band plunged into their first upbeat number. Hit the ground running, was Eddy’s motto. Three months into the clear-up and folk were ready to let their hair down. It had been ninety days of hard work, of grim discoveries, of burials and memorials. Slowly normality had returned. Power. Water. Food and fuel deliveries. The internet and phone signals. The streets had been cleared, the ploughed piles of dirty snow slowly melting away. It was strange, at first, to see asphalt again, sidewalks, lawns and fields – the colour slowly returning to the landscape like someone adjusting the balance on an old television.
The completion of the new solar-panelled lighthouse had been the symbol of renewal for the community – an affirmation that the sun would once more grow in strength, the light would return, and crops would grow again. The nuclear winter was over – all the reports confirmed it. The floods had been devastating, but at least the milder weather and greater daylight made the rescue and clear-up operations easier.
As satellite communications were restored a flood of emails, texts, and voice-mails filled up people’s message boxes. In the last week Eddy had received two unexpected but welcome messages: one was from Cruz, who was now leading the remaining members of the Wild Hunt. She had sent a photo of herself in front of the club on the battle-scarred million-dollar bike. The message simply said: ‘The Wild Hunt rides on! Patch for life, Red! Seeya on the road!’
The other was a video-message from Bog standing with a pint of Guiness outside Lowry’s: ‘Would you believe it, I made it back! Took a week to thaw out! My hands were like a pack of fecking fish fingers! I found your website. Looks shite, but the music sounds good! Come over the pond for a jar or three! You’ll like the craic here. It suits crazy halfbreed like us! Anyway, I see from your homecoming gig you made it back. That was one epic ride there, my friend! You’re a legend! Here’s to more wild times, but with better weather, hey?’
Eddy scanned the dancing crowd and saw his sister dancing proudly near the front with her friends. She waved and grinned. He smiled back and went into the lick of the next track – a smooth segue they had been practising for a while. They had a three song medley to warm up the crowd, and they weren’t going to pause for a break and a bit of banter until then. He was in full flow, loving the vibes, the admiring or envious looks, but more this time – the deep appreciation, the respect. He wasn’t just Eddy of the Runestone Cowboys, he was a local hero, and perhaps more, but no one except his community knew the whole story. He was cool with that – the last thing he wanted was news crews camped outside the family home, pestering his friends and family for sound-bites, tempting offers to appear on chat shows and more. After everything he had gone through more than anything he wanted to keep it real. A low profile. His old job. A cold one with his friends down the brewhouse now and then. Sure, he had fantastic memories to keep him going for the rest of his life. Those would never fade. The people he had met. The things he had seen. He had ridden with legends. Fought monsters. Journeyed between worlds. And had lived. That was enough for any man.
At least that’s what he told himself.
But he had tasted magic. And the world would never be the same again. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw her. She haunted his dreams.
No mortal woman would ever live up to her, and how could they? He had sampled the nectar of the gods. He knew he should just be content – for being back in Gimli, for being alive. They had all lost much, but he still had the gift of life, so fragile, so precious. And once gone, irreplaceable.
Every day he reminded himself of that. He easily he could have failed, could not be here.
Where would he be, exactly, he wondered? Which world would his spirit go? Was it destined for a Dakota afterlife or an Icelandic one – or some snakehole between the two? He shook his head and laughed and the audience thought it was just the buzz of the performance. He had spent his life trying to square that one, and perhaps he never would. Death was merely a change of worlds, his grandfather had said. Perhaps there, in the great beyond, all such differences faded away… The Red and the White. The Black. The Yellow. The Rainbow Nations, becoming one again. Perhaps there, all his loved ones who had passed on waited for him…
Lost in the solo with the throb of the drums behind him, he slipped into a semi-trance state. The hall suddenly felt larger, the crowd vast – extending into shadowy catacombs where ranks of ancestors eavesdropped.
Eddy nearly fudged a chord as he was overwhelmed by the presence of his grandfathers – Gunnar and Running Bear stepped forward from the shadows, side-by-side. They parted as a blue light appeared between them.
The image vanished in a flash, and suddenly there in the audience … there she was, dancing.
She gyrated to the music. Wearing jeans, boots, a tight t-shirt, she just looked like another one of the crowd, out for a good time.
Eddy nearly fell off the stage. His bandmates made a joke, yanked him back, carried on playing.
She looked up at him, and her fierce blue eyes caught his.
Announcement by WOTAN (broadcast on all channels, in all media formats)
We declare our resolution to bring an end to the crisis which has threatened the very survival of our species these last few months. By working together the members of WOTAN have put into place emergency protocols that prioritise humanitarian aid, the sharing of resources and information across borders, and collaboration between our armed forces. The well-being of our citizens and the care of the vulnerable is our top priority. It is expected that major flooding will occur across coastal areas as the ice melts, so co-ordinated evacuation is taking place wherever possible. We acknowledge that this is an unprecedented situation – and we must accept our culpability in bringing about this Climate Chaos through the thoughtless use of fossil fuels. This must change – we have the technology to solve these problems and draft plans are being formulated – but for now, we must salvage what we can and rebuild our lives. We ask every citizen to help their neighbour and their community. Humanity has been tested. We must learn the lessons of this crisis, and build a wiser, more compassionate world.
Chapter 34: Brighter Than the Sun
Eddy sat by the statue of Leif Ericsson, strumming his guitar, looking out over Lake Manitoba. It was definitely getting milder, the ice starting to break up on the water, patches of green emerging from the melting snow. It was like the first inklings of spring, though it was midsummer. He ran through the chords of one of the Runestone Cowboys standards, but his heart wasn’t in it. He was looking forward to playing with the band again – they had been booked to play at the reopening of the Lighthouse, repurposed as a community hub. There had been a couple of rehearsals, and a lot of beer drunk, as he had caught up with the band and shared some of his wild exploits. He didn’t like talking about it too much, as it all sounded like some low budget B-movie, the magic bled away in the neon glare of a bar-room or strip-lit garage-cum-practise-room. He stopped strumming and flexed his fingers. Still stiff after all that riding – his death-grip crossing the ice, day after day, pulled something and his hands throbbed, especially at night. He circled the scar in his palm fondly, then sighed, looking at the bleak, familiar vista. Nothing could go back to the way it was. Absent-mindedly he played a chord, pushing it around the fretboard. A promising pattern fell into place and he played it again, building upon it. He began to hum along a harmony and for a while he was just lost in his music. Forging a new song for a new age.
Eddy looked up. It was Siggy, wearing a thick colourful coat, hat, gloves and ear-warmers.
‘I thought I recognised that caterwauling. Shove over. I’ve got coffee.’
Eddy smiled and made room for his sister.
She gave him a peck on the cheek, and then poured them both some coffee.
He breathed it in. ‘Ah, I’ve missed your industrial grade joe, sizzers,’ smiled Eddy, grimacing as he took a sip.
‘Some cookies too,’ she offered from a bag.
Eddy gave her a curious look. She had been overly attentive since he’d made it back, fussing around him like a mother hen. Half the available women in Gimli had as well, but his sister had kept them at bay – couldn’t they see he was broken-hearted and needing some healing time? Not only had he gone to Hell and back saving them all – where exactly she still couldn’t quite get her head around – but he had lost the love of his life too boot. ‘Give the man some space!’ she warned, while smothering him with her sisterly love.
As they sipped their coffee and munched on the cookies, they gazed over Gimli. The place was slowly being sorted out – the roads being cleared of snow, buildings being repaired, power restored, services coming back on line. It was going to take a while for ‘normal service to be resumed’, but there was a semblance of order being restored. The worst job was dealing with the bodies – not only the victims of the raiders, whose own corpses had dissolved away staining the snow like an oil spill, but those found frozen in their cars, in their powerless homes. The sports centre had become a temporary morgue, as folk returned to their own dwellings. Identifying the dead had been a grim task.
‘I miss him,’ said Eddy, finally.
Siggy snuggled close, leaning her head on his shoulder. ‘Me too.’
‘So many dead to mourn, it’s … overwhelming. But losing him has hit me more than anything, well … almost.’
They scanned the lake, hoping to see some meaning in the runes of black cracks.
‘Everyone is looking forward to the gig tonight. Folk need a good dance, let their hair down, shake some feathers, after … all of this.’
Eddy grimaced. ‘I hope we’re going to be warmed up enough. Hardly had time to practise. We’re rusty as fuck.’
‘Oh, a few beers, and the cheers of the crowd should warm you up.’
‘Let’s hope so. I don’t know if I’m really in the party spirit, to be honest.’
‘That’s completely understandable. Just be real. People will dig that. It’ll give your music real grit.’
At the word, Eddy found his ears prickling with tears.
‘What’s up?’ she asked.
‘Oh, nothing… Just something grandfather once said to me…’
Siggy put her arm around him and he leaned his head on her shoulder as they gazed across the bay. ‘He’d be so proud of you,’ she whispered.
Eddy shook his head. ‘I’d rather have him back.’
‘I don’t he’ll ever go away… He’s probably looking down on us right now, laughing.’
They scanned the threadbare blanket of cloud cover.
‘He’s gone. And he’s not coming back. It hurts, it hurts real bad. But … I’m ready to deal with it.’
Siggy nodded. ‘We’ve all survived something … mad … it has stripped away a lot of bullshit. Folk don’t want fake anything anymore.’
‘Let’s hope so.’ Eddy finished his coffee, and flicked the grouts into the snow.
‘I don’t think folk will be so quick to vote in a shuckster like Koil again,’ she assessed, packing away the Thermos and Tupperware. ‘No more wizards of Oz! But we need checks and balances so it doesn’t ever get out of hand like it did. No single leader should wield so much power.’
‘Well, sounds like the new NATO will see to that.’
‘WOTAN,’ she corrected. ‘Yes, since they formed the emergency council of countries dealing with the crisis things have started to be sorted out. It is amazing what we can achieve when we work together.’
A flash of light caught their eye. They turned to the lighthouse.
‘Looks like they’re fixing those new solar panels in place,’ said Eddy. ‘Optimistic!’
‘That there cloud is finally starting to break up. The experts on the radio say the nuclear winter is coming to an end. The volcanic ash and dust in the jet-stream is finally dispersing.’
‘Well, don’t get out your bikini yet, sis. It’s going to take a while before things warm up.’
‘I don’t know. I think there is already a little thaw,’ she held his hand, and smiled. ‘I think I can even feel a pulse.’
Praise day at even, a wife when dead, a weapon when tried, a maid when married, ice when ’tis crossed, and ale when ’tis drunk.
Chapter 24: Coastguard
Eddy rode on. That is all he did, for that was all he knew. He was close to getting frozen to his bike. Man and machine in perfect harmony – yeah, right. Eddy felt as clapped out as his ride, which rattled in an alarming fashion. It had taken a battering back there, as had he. Lucky to get out of that Coastguard tub alive. When he thought of those frozen corpses… At least he had a bag of food and a can of gas, but how long was that going to last him, realistically? A couple of days before he ran out of fuel, a couple of more before the food went. He’d been on the ‘road’ now, if you could call it that, for at least four, maybe five days now. He should be there, going by Rig’s estimates, but that wasn’t factoring in the extreme conditions, the giants and abysses, zombie coast-guards and leviathans. It was turning into a salty seadog tale in his imagination already – rime of the ancient fucking mariner. His stubble was frosted with frozen brine, so he had the look right. With his mix of First Nation and Icelandic blood, he’d never been able to grow a full beard, just ‘bum-fluff’ as his sister liked to call it. But he felt grizzled enough – an Arctic explorer. Well, it was in his blood, if Grandpa Gunnar was to be believed: descended from Leif Ericsson himself. How that squared up, he didn’t know, as he thought the Icelanders of Gimli were all descended from Mormons who had come over in the eighteen hundreds. But Gunnar had been insistent. Some of Leif’s men had settled. Had there not been archaeological remains on Greenland? Other possible sites on the north-east coast of America? As always, Eddy’s grandfather mixed up real history with his own personal mythologizing. But then most Icelanders seemed to claim descent from Thor or one of the Aesir…
He smiled at this, thinking fondly of The Hammer and the rest of the Wild Hunt. Maybe there was something in that claim after all, for the gods lived – lesser than before, yes, but here at the end of the world, duking it out with the bad guys one last time. And Eddy was playing his part, however small. If he didn’t die on this interminable ice first, that is.
Stopping for a snack and a stretch – he’d been riding for a couple of hours – he pulled out the sunstone. It glowed in the perpetually overcast gloom and was deliciously warm in his hand, which started to soften from its cramped death-grip position. It made the frost-bitten tips of his fingers burn, but he gritted his teeth and waited. After a moment, he felt a distinctive tug in one direction. The sunstone shifted on his now fully open palm, fixing on one direction: magnetic north.
Figuring he had passed the southern tip of Greenland now, he knew he had to head due west, striking out along the sixtieth parallel (he could picture it in his mind’s eye, having pored over atlases in his community school). Crossing the frozen Labrador Sea, he would, if all went well, reach the Canadian coast. He had to make for the Hudson Strait, into Hudson Bay, to Churchill, on Manitoba’s eastern coast, approximately two thousand miles. From there he could follow the railroad to north of Lake Manitoba, then take the Winnipeg Road down to Gimli – another mere six hundred miles or so. Simple! Except he’d need at least ten refuelling stops on his Buell Ulysses. Not many gas stations between here and Churchill. He couldn’t rely upon finding ships and after the last experience he wasn’t sure he wanted to. It was insane, and he had a snowball in hell’s chance of making it, without extra-ordinary luck. But that was exactly what Fenja had gifted him.
And he had the sunstone too.
And, according to his grandpa Gunnar, his own orlog. He had struggled to understand what had been meant by that at the time – ‘Your luck, your will, your destiny…’ Gunnar had elaborated, vaguely, pounding his chest. Between the hamingja of a frost giant’s daughter, the sun stone of Sol, and his own orlog, Eddy hoped that he had the ghost of a chance at least.
At the end of the day, he brooded as he looked across the endless ice, being alive is a risky business and all we have to peg our hopes upon are the blessings of our beliefs.
Eddy rarely prayed, but he felt the extremity of the circumstances called for it. So, feeling a little foolish, he raised his arms and called out his hopes, his voice sounding strange on the still air: ‘May the gods of the red and the white, ancestors of my people, and spirits of the sea, land and sky, bless this journey. Help me, Great Mystery, to get home.’
Remembering the bearing, he put away the sun stone, and got back on the bike, heading across the ice into the west.
Eddy’s bike had a range of two hundred and forty miles, and a couple of tanks worth of gas would get him about half way across the Labrador Sea. And then what…? He tried not to think about it. ‘Denial is not a river in Egypt,’ he could hear his sister saying. Just keep riding, Eddy, just keep riding…
Ice, ice, more fucking ice. The world had turned into a snowball. Maybe this was it. The. End. Eddy brooded. Maybe there was no point in fighting it. There had been ice ages before – he remembered that much from school. Mass extinction events. Maybe humanity’s time was up? Hell, the world would be better off. Mother Earth could have a breather. Mend herself. Start afresh, once she’d recovered from her abusive relationship with Man. Many of the species would be okay. Sure, some would die off, but others would cope, or adapt. The polar bears and snow leopards would flourish again. The Inuits and the other polar tribes might scrape by, but they would continue as they had done, on the fringes, in the minority – leading low impact lives. Maybe his people would too, better suited to the extreme cold, the Canadian winters. But … what about the rest of the human race? Didn’t they stand a chance? If he had a role in trying to save them, however minor, then Eddy didn’t want six billion lives on his conscience. That was too much bad blood for anyone to handle! Besides, he couldn’t let bastards like Koil and his cronies win – sitting out the Fimbul-Winter in their cosy bunkers, fiddling while the world freezes. The anger at the thought drove Eddy onwards, giving him a new surge of energy.
He never realised, he thought distantly, there were so many shades of white. The vista was like some abstract impressionist painting, a large canvas thickly painted with coagulated oils – ivory white, lead white, titanium white … Look closer and you would start to discern other colours tangled up in the viscous brush-strokes, or glimpsed beneath. Spectral ghosts. The memory of colour.
Eddy was numb from tip to toe, but felt a strange serene acceptance.
Everything fades to white in the end, he thought. Why resist?
The deathly scene filled him with peace.
Life was … an effort … he didn’t want to make anymore.
Then the bike cut out, rolling to a stop.
He laughed bitterly. That was that, then.
Eddy threw his helmet off as he climbed off the Buell and kicked it across the ice. ‘Aargghhh!!!’
He fell to his knees. Still hundreds of miles from the coast, thousands from home. Who was he fucking kidding? It was getting dark again. No shelter. He’d freeze to death on the ice without it – the sunstone would only keep him alive for so long.
As he knelt there in despair, he suddenly felt a vibrated in the ice, which made him get to his feet. He scanned the bleak vista. Nothing, but the light, such as it was, was fading – just a thin red band towards the west. Then he felt another shudder. This time his eyes were drawn to the bloody afterlight of the setting sun. Another boom, and he was able to locate the source. There.
Eddy rubbed his eyes, looked again.
Silhouetted against the blood-stained sky was the figure of a man, but the scale was all wrong. He was miles away.
But with each slow step the ice shuddered again.
Then the dread realisation hit him.
And he was coming closer.
And then Eddy saw two others join him.
Here he was: no gas, a sitting duck. There was no point in running.
Time to meet your maker, Eddy Redcrow.
He just sat there, leaning against his bike, singing ‘The End’ by The Doors, as he watched the giants approach. They were the height of a five-storey building, and wore long cloaks of whale-skin, encrusted with barnacles and trimmed with polar bear fur. They wielded spears made of single trunks of the tallest pines, spear-heads the size of anchors. Their faces seemed hewn from a wave-blasted sea-cliff, eyes the hue of glaciers. Towering over Eddy, they looked down upon him as though he were a plaything.
‘Oh, look, what prize the ice has brought us, brothers!’ roared the first one, with a shovel shaped beard orca black with a single streak of white.
‘An intruder, trying to sneak into Kong Koil’s kingdom. Not many come this way. It is a good day,’ said the second, with a beard as ragged and grey as an Arctic peninsula.
‘We must tear him limb from limb,’ rumbled the third, whose spiky beard was as white as icicles.
‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ they said in unison.
The three giants reached down with fingernails like narwhale tusks.
He waited for the first blow to fall.
‘You will do no such thing, if you value your lives!’
Eddy turned in surprise to see a familiar figure standing next to him.
He couldn’t believe his eyes. There she was. Not a vision, but really there!
‘I am the daughter of Thrym, your king! This human is under my protection! Find prey elsewhere, frost-giant kin! No feast of hot blood for you here today! Go!’
The giants sighed with disappointment, but stood upright and turned slowly, walking away with a booming gait.
‘I can open portals between the nine worlds. The serpent-paths are there if you know how to find them. I merely turn the key.’
Eddy blinked through the tears. ‘Why … didn’t you use this … gift … to get across Europe?’
She shrugged. ‘Time of the month.’
‘I’m serious! The magic is like my moon-blood. It waxes and wanes. Sometimes stepping through is easier. The snakeholes just … open wide.’
He shook his head, laughing in disbelief, in relief. ‘Oh, I don’t care. It’s just … so good to see you!’
Fenja pushed him back. ‘I cannot stay. Time is of the essence. Only I can persuade my father not to destroy humankind. I must return to his realm.’
‘But Fen! I’m shafted here … If the frost giants don’t get me, the cold will. I’m out of gas and out of luck!’
‘You have some of my hamingja, remember? It doesn’t run out so easily. But here, let me leave you with this parting gift…’
Smiling, Fenja placed her hands upon the tank of the Buell. From her fingertips emitted an aureole of blue light like a kirilian photograph. ‘There, that should get you home.’
‘What have you done?’ Eddy wondered.
‘Just get on your bike and ride. Find that runestone Eddy Redcrow. Much depends upon it. Farewell, for now!’
Fenja stretched out a long nail and a tearing sound cut him to the quick.
A split in the night opened like a tear in satin. From it radiated a cold light and icy blast even fiercer than the one on the frozen sea. Fenja stepped through and the gash sealed up behind her.
Eddy was left alone on the ice. He tried the engine and it started straight away. The fuel gauge needle suddenly leapt to full. Smiling, Eddy rode on.
Now, where did that helmet go?
Retrieving his helmet, Eddy roared westwards. No matter how long he rode, the fuel gauge did not go down. Whatever Fenja had done, it had worked. Hell, that gal could solve the world fuel crisis!
He rode through the night and on into the grey light of the next day. His heart leapt when he saw the coast of Canada. As he reached the Hudson Strait, he stopped to have something to eat and drink. He dropped the sunstone in his mug of coffee, and it heated it in seconds. Feeling a little more revived, he pushed on, following the northern coastline of Quebec around into the Hudson Bay.
Though it was vast enough to feel like a sea, Eddy was heartened to enter it, knowing it was surrounded by Canadian soil.
All day long and all the next he traversed it, heading southwest until he saw the sight he’d been longing for for days. The coast of Manitoba, and Cape Churchill.
Riding up onto the shore line he got off his bike and kissed the land, thanking the gods, ancestors and spirits.
He made his way to the lonely railway terminal and onto the tracks, which, beneath the snow, provided a little more grip and stability than the surrounding landscape, and they were mercifully level. Beyond exhausted, he now rode on, possessed by a growing excitement.
But the miles carried on and on, seemingly forever, and his food supplies ran out. Weak with hunger and deep fatigue, he stopped to waver. Some kind of muscle memory kept him upright, kept him moving forward.
Mercifully, he didn’t have to think about the route. Just follow the tracks until it hit the road at Ponton, then follow that down to Gimli.
The bike seemed to know what to do. Had Fenja’s magic touch done more than fill the tank with perpetually renewing petrol?
Eddy was never to find out.
After several more weary hours, Eddy finally passed out and the bike skidded into a snow-drift.
Just over its ridge, the sign for Gimli protruded.
‘Well, Snorri, you old fox. Even you did not expect to see this! The Fimbul-Winter is truly here!’
Having lived alone for most of his adult life, Snorri was used to talking to himself. He did not see it as odd. ‘It’s the only way I can have an intelligent conversation around here!’ he would joke. In truth, he’d had plenty of company over the years – hundreds of Gimli’s brightest hopes, scratching out there sentences in his classroom while he tried to kindle in them a love of history and literature, geography and art; and then, after he retired, the various audiences he shared his considerable repertoire of tales with. He had been working on an oral history of Gimli for decades, painstakingly collecting family histories, anecdotes, songs, folk tales, jokes, folklore … anything. He took perfunctory notes, sometimes audio recordings, but most were stored in his carpet-bag of memory. He felt it his duty to keep the material alive, in circulation, fearing it would die out if it was locked in written form. Whenever he heard a tale, he would exchange it for one of his own. A joke for a joke, a song for a song, and so on. It seemed fair barter. The fact he was as good a listener as speaker, made him welcome around most people’s hearths. Many found themselves opening their hearts to him, and sharing things they hadn’t talked about in years. Secrets and ghosts, and tears of joy and sorrow.
Yes, he had plenty of company. Returning to his small place he would reflect upon what his snares and traps of smiles and handshakes had brought him. He never went hungry.
His bright, canny gaze swept over the flatland, scanning left until it alighted upon the cluster of buildings he knew as home – so frail and vulnerable looking against the might of this freak winter.
‘Ah, good citizens of Gimli. May Heimdal protect you!’
He replaced his goggles and hood, and, taking up his poles, skied along the lakeshore down towards the scattered homes on its fringes.
As he skied, he sang a Dakota tune to himself about the return of the Thunder Bird, which heralded the Spring.
The first house he came to was the Redcrow’s place. He’d heard how they were fearing the worst for their son, young Eddy, and so Snorri decided to call in on them, to be neighbourly.
He placed his skis against the porch, and stamping his boots free of snow, he knocked on the door.
Sitting Cloud answered, looking flustered in an apron. Good smells were coming from inside, as well as cussing from her husband, yelling from her daughter, and snoring from her father.
‘Well, well, look who rolled down the hill!’
‘I was passing by. Thought I’d check in on you.’
‘What, are you the district nurse now?’ She laughed. ‘Better come inside then, dry your boots. Quick, before we lose the heat!’ Sitting Cloud bustled him inside. She noted the brace of conies. ‘Look at you, the great white hunter!’
Snorri carefully put down his rifle, and lifted the rabbits off. ‘Figured I needed something for my pot, but here – have one! A gift!’
‘Go on. No point in being backwards in coming forwards. We all know how hard it is to keep bellies fed at the moment, with the roads blocked, and the stores running low.’
Sitting Cloud accepted it, giving him a peck on the cheek and a hug.
‘What’s this? I turn my back for five minutes and you’re having an affair with a senior citizen!’ It was Magnus, standing in the doorway, a bear of a man in an Icelandic sweater.
‘Well, he’s in good shape, husband – unlike you!’ Sitting Cloud laughed, slapping his sizeable belly.
‘Keep feeding us your infernal pulses and beans and we’ll all end up like him! A streak of piss in the snow!’ He roared, and gave their visitor a bear-hug. ‘How are you, you old fox!’
‘Trying to breathe!’ Snorri gasped.
‘Come in! Have a shot of something warming…’ Magnus started to clatter around the drinks cupboard and finally found two unused glasses, which he dusted with the bottom of his sweater.
‘Look! He’s brought us a rabbit!’
‘Then you are thrice-welcome, Snorri! Sit. Warm your bones. Tell us your news. We’re all in the dark here now the internet has gone down. According to my blessed daughter that really signifies the end of the world!’ he yelled across the room.
‘Keep it down, you oaf. Father is trying to sleep!’ said Sitting Cloud, clearing a chair for their guest.
‘That’s all he does these days!’ rumbled Magnus.
‘So would you, if you’d hunted down a mankiller!’ she hissed.
‘Yeah, yeah. How grandfather saved Gimli. We’ll never hear the end of that one!’
Snorri was already very familiar with how the Sheriff and Running Bear tackled the Wendigo. The details had been kept away from the press, but the ‘Gimli grapevine’ soon had worked it up into legend. He still needed to talk to Ava and the old man about it – but the heavy snow had caught them all off-guard, and most folk had been snowed in for days now.
‘Here!’ Magnus presented Snorri with a shot glass of vodka and clinked it with his own. ‘Skol!’
Snorri waited for his host to settle, sipping his vodka slowly. ‘Ah, how I’ve missed your antifreeze, Magnus!’ They watched the log-burner for a while, while Sitting Cloud fussed in the kitchen. Custom dictated they offered him chocolates and coffee, but they were running low. ‘How are you all … bearing up?’
Magnus downed his vodka, leaned in close and spoke low: ‘Siggy is taking it the worst. She won’t give up. Believes he’s still out there somewhere. Surviving – in this!’
‘What about …?’ Snorri nodded to the kitchen.
Magnus blew out his cheeks. ‘Well, a mother, y’know. He was the apple of her eye. She’s coping by going into overdrive. Says we need to keep his room ready, the place warm and broth on the go, as though he was going to walk through the door at any minute!’ He shook his head, staring at the empty glass.
‘Eddy is a chip off the old block. If he’s anything like you two stubborn old mules he’ll be out there somewhere, making a go of it. I just know it.’
‘See! See! What did I tell you!’ It was Siggy, standing in the door from the bedrooms, looking wild-haired and dressed in a Rocky and Bullwinkle onesy and dressing gown, with one slipper.
‘Siggy, please!’ groaned Magnus.
‘Sit down, love. Have something to eat…’ implored Sitting Cloud.
‘Hey, Siggy’s right. It’s a tough old world out there at the moment, but we can’t give up hope.’
‘I can hear a story coming on…’ Magnus smiled.
‘Only if you want one…?’
‘Please, go on.’ Sitting Cloud sat down and gestured to her daughter, who curled up onto her.
‘You may well know this tale but I find with the good ones you can tell them again and again – like drinking a glass of water. Always hits the spot when you’re thirsty!’
‘Get on with it then!’ said Magnus, pouring them both another shot.
‘Rabbit lived with his grandma in their snug old lodge. Every day he went a-hunting. But you know what? No matter how early he got up, someone always beat him too his traps, leaving them empty. “Darn it!” said Rabbit. The only clue who it was – a very long foot print. “I’m gonna get up super early tomorrow, and catch that varmint red-handed!” So, back he went to his lodge, and tried to get an early night’s sleep, but he could hardly settled in anticipation. By the time he finally fell asleep rooster woke him up. He sprang out of bed. ‘The traps! The snares!’ He scarpered to them, but it was already too late. The long-footed thief had already been and got his breakfast, courtesy of his efforts. Rabbit hopped about in vexation. He returned to his grandma empty-handed again. He complained about his rival to his grandmother, who wondered what he had against him. She was wiser and perhaps knew the truth of it, and smiled at her grandson’s plans to stay awake all night to catch the culprit. He went back to the snares and traps and hid among the undergrowth. Using a strong bowstring, he set a snare by the tell-tale tracks, hoping to catch the secret hunter. He was tired from all his hard-work and lack of sleep from the night before, so he nodded off. When he awoke it was day. He panicked, but to his surprise, he found his trap had worked. He had caught the thief who was the Sun itself! Rabbit ran home and told his grandmother in great excitement. “I’ve caught him! I’ve caught him!” “Who have you caught, grandson?” “A very bright fellow. So bright in fact, it hurts me to look directly at him!” “Hmm,” pondered grandmother, looking at the grey sky and shivering. “I think you should go back and let him go and quick!” So, Rabbit ran back at top speed and sure enough, he found Sun caught in his trap, all tangled up with the bow-string. “Get me out of this mess this instant! I’ve got a busy day and you’re making me late!” blazed the Sun in his fury. Rabbit felt the heat of his wrath, but did as he bid. He ducked and dived and, finally, with his good hunting knife – snick – cut Sun free. Immediately, Sun soared up into the sky and returned light and heat to the world, which was starting to get dark and chilly. Rabbit breathed a sigh of relief, but winced – for a patch of fur between his shoulders had been scorched yellow by the sun and remains so to this day, a constant reminder of when Rabbit caught the Sun.’
Snorri finished his tale, and was glad to see Magnus, Sitting Bear and Siggy all sitting there, gazing into the flames of the burner.
‘Well,’ he stretched. ‘I best be on my way. Thanks for the drink. And don’t worry about a bite to eat. I’ve got plenty to keep me going!’
He got up and hugged them one by one.
Magnus handed him his rifle; Sitting Cloud the remaining rabbits.
Putting on his skis, he waved to them as they stood in the doorway. ‘Don’t give up hope, the sun will come back!’
Snorri carried on his way, his load slightly lighter – he had six rabbits left – but his heart fuller. He hoped his story helped in some way. On a practical level the rabbit certainly would – providing a meal for a day. Stories, he found, provided food that lasted longer. Despite all the sophistication of modern life, or perhaps because of it folks needed nourishing stories to live by. For too long they had lived off the fast food kind of stories pumped out by the mass media. A healthy mind was like a healthy body – and he prided himself in keeping in shape – you needed to feed it well. A good diet; regular exercise. If you eat junk, you feel like junk, and your dreams become filled with junk. Here he was, in his seventies, and still running marathons and using his extensive memory every day. Use it, or lose it, as they say. Most folks relied upon ‘the Cloud’ or an external hard-drive to save things and no longer try to remember anything. Passwords and pins that’s all people remember these days, thought Snorri, pushing on through the snow. Passwords and pins!
He waved to the Sheriff and one of her deputies, doing the rounds on their snow-mobiles. Ava Rivet was a good woman, thought Snorri. Gimli was lucky to have her. Unlike that waste-of-space Mayor. Even as a pupil, Sonny Thornson had been a selfish bully, always picking on the other kids, stealing their snacks. Now as Mayor of Gimli he was even worse, making sure him and his cronies lined their pockets with local contracts and benefited from his position. In some ways, he was like Snorri – but he used his silver tongue to get his way, making people laugh, playing the buffoon, while he worked his way up the ladder. He was gunning for State Governor – plain as day – but for now, Gimli was his personal fiefdom. Running the department store hadn’t been enough for him. He was always hungry for more. Snorri suspected many of his appetites were on the wrong side of the law, but he didn’t want to poke that hornet’s nest!
With the freak winter all bets were off. Everyone’s priorities shifted to core needs. Survival. Though it didn’t have to be just the fittest who survived. More than ever we need to look out for each other, Snorri thought.
He came to the house of the local priest and saw a lonely light burning in the front room. Reverend Viktor Olafsson was an old chess-playing friend of Snorri’s, and so he called by. His friend was clearly ‘well lubricated’, even though it was not even midday. ‘Snorri! Come in! Come in!’
Olafsson flopped down heavily in his armchair. ‘Help yourself, old friend…’ the priest waved to the drinks table. ‘I’m afraid I’m not really in a state to play a game today…’ He picked up his tumbler. ‘Here’s mud in your eye,’ he toasted, swooshing the contents round his mouth, before swallowing it. ‘Ahh.’
‘Are you eating anything, Viktor?’
`Oh, peanuts … pretzels … There’s stuff in the cupboards, but I really can’t find the time …’
‘You’ve got to eat well in this weather, friend. And you need something to soak up the drink…’
‘You sound like my housekeeper… Always nagging me. I’ve told her she needs to look after her own. The journey is worth it. Nobody is going anywhere. Certainly nobody is coming to church… You know how many people I’ve gave my sermon to on Sunday? Three! And one of those was the organist!’
‘Don’t take it personally. It’s hard to get anywhere at the moment. Unless you have skis or a snowmobile, well, forget it.’
‘Not everybody is as nimble as you! I don’t know how you manage it, doing your crazy running! Anybody think you sold your soul to the Devil for a good pair of legs.’
‘Not quite. But here … have one of my rabbits. Make some broth.’
The priest accepted the gift, stroking the limp body like it was a pet. ‘Thank you.’
Snorri tried to work out what the strange sound was a realised Olafsson was crying. He got up and, awkwardly, put his arms round his old friend.
‘It’s all so … fucking pointless,’ spat the priest, snot and tears running down his face.
‘Here,’ Snorri offered his friend a tissue. He waited for Olafsson to compose himself. ‘Don’t give up, my friend. You know I’ve never been one of the faithful, but I do believe we all need stories to get us through this. We need something to believe in.’
‘That’s the problem… I’m not sure if I do any more.’ Olafsson stared at the facets of his tumbler. ‘All the people suffering … dying … because of this infernal winter. How can a God justify that? How can I explain it to my flock, when I don’t have an explanation for it? It feels like the light of the Father has left us. His children so appalled Him, He has decided to forsake us. It’s no less then we deserve.’
Snorri gave him a hard look. ‘You’re just experiencing the belly of the whale, my friend.’
‘I’m not alone in there! Welcome to Leviathan! Population eight billion and counting!’
‘Here, let me share a story…’ offered Snorri.
The priest shrugged. ‘Why not? Got time to kill. S’plenty of time at the end of time,’ he slurred.
Snorri frowned with concern, but took a deep breath and plunged in. ‘Once they was a hill that ate people. That’s right, a hill with one hell of an appetite. Rabbit’s grandma told him to stay away from it! “Don’t go near that hill, grandson – it has a mean cussedness to it. Will eat you soon as look at you! Even when it’s not peckish!” But Rabbit had a contrary nature. The more he was warned not to do something, the more he wanted to. And so he found himself nibbling closer and closer to that mean old hill and its cave-like crack of its mouth. He knew the name of that hill and feeling mischievous Rabbit called out: “Hey! Pahe-Wathahuni, open that big flap of your’s and eat me if you dare!” But the hill knew Rabbit and his tricks and so ignored him, pretending to sleep. But when a hunting party of two-leggeds came close Pahe-Wathahuni opened his big wide maw and swallowed them whole. Acting fast, Rabbit dashed in behind them just before the mouth closed. Rabbit burrowed deep into the hill’s belly, but this tickled the monster mound, who coughed him up like a hairball. Finding himself back outside, Rabbit waited and another hunting party came along. The same thing happened – the hunters were gobbled up whole – but this time Rabbit, disguised as a two-legged, went in with them. He slid all the way down into the bowels of the hill. There, entangled in the monster’s guts, were the bones of those that had been devoured, and the bodies of those half-digested, and some that were still alive. And then there was a gigantic juicy heart. “What a juicy heart!” called out Rabbit to Pahe-Wathahuni, who was surprised and disconcerted to hear the voice within him! “Why don’t you eat it?” cried Rabbit. “It looks so tasty!” Rabbit took his good hunting knife and went as if to eat it himself. The hill, feeling ‘something that he ate’ was violently disagreeing with him, set to howling. This didn’t stop Rabbit slicing the heart in two – chop! The hill shuddered and split asunder. All the folk still alive within its belly were disgorged and, boy, were they glad to see the blue sky again! They hailed Rabbit as their deliverer, for he had cut Pahe-Wathahuni’s heart in two! The two-legged wanted to make Rabbit chief, but he declined, saying all he wanted was the big heap of blubber and guts left by the dead hill – this would feed him and his grandmother for a very long time. And so he carried the whole lot back to his lodge, and sure enough, they had good eating for many moons after. The end.’
The priest was snoring loudly by this point. Snorri sighed and gently took the tumbler from his hand and placed it on the table. Bidding his friend a quiet goodbye, he put his kit back on and set off, once more, into the snow.
He only had five rabbits left now. Snorri figured he probably wouldn’t have any left by the time he got home, but that would okay. He had plenty of dried and tinned food, and his neighbours mattered more. They were ravenous for story, even if they fell asleep at the first taste! Stories were the best rabbit broth. But as he pushed on through the frozen town, Snorri realised he had to come up with a new story for its population – one they were all writing day-by-day: How the town of Gimli survived the Great Winter.
In classic Fantasy novels places often seem like characters in their own right – think of the grotesque decrepitude of Gormenghast; the prelapsarian loveliness of Lothlorien and the Industrial nightmare of Mordor; the donnish eccentricity of Narnia; the heterogeneous archipelago of EarthSea; the Mooreefoccian Jordan College and the rugged fastness of the Svalbard Peninsula in His Dark Materials; the chrono-labyrinths of Ryhope Wood; the TARDIS-house of Little, Big . Agency in Place has be there from the earliest forays into Fantasy, in the monstrous uncivilisation that threatens Babylon in Gilgamesh, in the drear fen of Beowulf and the doom-laden fells of Gawain and the Green Knight. And it is to be found in modern cartographies of such liminal zones, in, for example, Anthony Nanson’s Deep Time (a helter skelter through the epochs hidden within a rainforest) and Tom and Nimue Brown’s Hopeless, Maine (an island in limbo from which no one can ever leave).
In my contemporary fantasy novel The Knowing setting plays a key role. In some ways the narrative emerged as a conversation between places: between the Scottish Lowlands and the Southern Appalachians primarily, but also between cities (Asheville and Glasgow), between the rural and urban, the wild and the tamed, as well as between worlds: the worlds of the Sidhe and the human – the Silver and the Iron, as one of my favourite characters puts it. Sideway Branelly is a Wayfarer, a trader between the worlds with an uncanny ability to find the hollers and low roads that link them. Although freer than many characters he is associated with the location in my novel I am most proud of and intrigued by: The Rift. This is an ever-widening gulf between the worlds …. a chancy No Man’s Land caused by the Sundering – a catastrophic sealing of the Borders between the worlds. This ultimate Debatable Land was part inspired by the psychogeography of the Scottish Borders – its long, bloody history of Border Reivers, blackmail, skirmishes, land grabs, cannibals, and uncanny goings on – and by Hadrian’s Wall, which I walked the 84 mile length of in 2014 with my partner folksinger Chantelle Smith*. The latter is an impressive if ultimately futile feat of engineering and hubris which seems eerily resonant – following the dramatic line of crags that rise between Newcastle and Carlisle, a natural line of defense augmented by mile-castles, vallum (parallel ditches), auxillary towns, and a twelve foot high wall, the Wall seems, in its derelict state (masonry stolen for local buildings) particularly Ozymandian. If it was designed to keep the ‘other’ out (i.e. the wild Pictish tribes to the north – the ‘Kong’ of our Skull Island) it failed – but it is possible it was used to control trade as much as anything, and demarcate the northernmost extremity of the Roman Empire (when the Antonine Wall was abandoned farther north). It was clearly a power statement saying, among others things: look what the might of the Roman Empire can achieve; and, the savage north is ungovernable and thus economically useless. What we cannot control we disown, casting out beyond the pale of our ‘civilisation’. Of course, the Picts might have seen it conversely – that the Wall marked the end of freedom, and the beginning of control. What makes Hadrian’s Wall more than just some impressive military archaeology is the glimpse it affords us into the beliefs and lifestyles of those that worked and lived upon it – the temples to Mithras; the shrines to other, obscurer deities (such as Mars-Nodentis, or the Cucullati); the graffiti from bored, homesick Centurions; the bath-houses, store-rooms, stables, barracks; the service towns that grew up on its flanks; the whole economy the presence of Rome created. Walking the Wall gave me a lot of the time to ponder on the creative tensions of such a place. And the museums my partner insisted we visited all helped to enrich my imagination.
Sycamore Gap, Kevan Manwaring 2014
The one place that particularly fired my imagination though was a natural wonder – an amazingly situated sycamore tree whose roots grew on both sides. Made famous by its appearance in various films (e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), it inspired a poem (‘Sycamore Gap’) and the idea of a Rift Oak, which grows between the worlds, demarcating the edges of both – the ultimate border oak. I liked the idea of the natural subverting man-made borders. Of course, birds of prey, foxes, badger, deer, mice… all ignore the wall. Nature cocks a snook at man. And what if I had a character like that – who broke the rules? Who crossed a Border that was meant to be sealed? Who smuggled things – contraband, journals, people – across. And so Sideways Brannelly was born. I needed someone who would smuggle something pivotal out of the Silver, back to the Iron. And Brannelly, a reluctant hero (driven mainly by a desire for personal gain, petty revenge, and a contrarian mindset) got the job. And the Rift was forged – in the Sundering of worlds, a cataclysmic plot event which now seems eerily prescient. The Knowing’s first draft was written against the backdrop of the first Scottish national referendum in 2014 (my initial field visits haunted by a countryside divided into ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ flags, banners and signs) – little did I know then there would be (most likely) a sequel to that, Brexit (Theresa May announcing the date of the triggering of Article 50 on the day my ebook was released), and Trump’s victory, isolationism, ‘Muslim ban’ and Mexican Border wall plans (America as Skull Island). Not that I equate a bid for Scottish independence with Brexit or Trump – this time I think it is an entirely sane and justified thing to do – but they are all taking place in the same increasingly sundered world. The European refugee crisis that has played out in the last couple of years is real humanitarian disaster, but in some small way, the ‘backstory’ of my novel seems to echo it, with what befalls the victims of the Sundering in my story-world – as Ironbloods and Silver find themselves trapped on the wrong side of the Rift. The results of this schism has turned this fault-line between the worlds into an increasingly perilous terroir – a chancy wasteland where a chancer like Brannelly can flourish … if he chooses to.
Sideways Brannelly’s bone-pipe – his favourite way of pondering. K. Manwaring 2017
The Knowing – A Fantasy is published as an eBook by Goldendark on 20th March and is available on Amazon Kindle
*Last year I walked another border – Offa’s Dyke, a long-distance footpath which runs 177 miles, the length of Wales from the north coast at Prestatyn to the Wye (another hubristic gesture, this time by the 8th Century King of Mercia, Offa). And this year I intend to walk the Southern Uplands Way (212). I must have Borders in my blood…
In writing my novel The Knowing – A Fantasy, a book which explores borders of different kinds, I have attempted to push the boundaries of not only genre, but also of form. Being more interested in the creative tension between – whether that is between the ‘Actual and Imaginary’ (as Nathaniel Hawthorne put it), the magical and the mundane, the secular and the sacred, the fictional and factual, Fantasy and Realism; or between cultures, countries, people, species… – I have fashioned a story that walks between worlds in myriad ways. To accommodate this porousness I have decided that the optimum way for the reader to interface with this – with the multiple paradigms I offer – is to create, for now, an e-book which allows the reader to interact with the text, to choose whether they wish to know about a particular character or subplot, or to stick with the main narrative (rather than swamp the text with footnotes).
I was mindful to avoid the fascinating, but overwhelming modernism of Ulysses, or the atomised postmodernism of House of Leaves (although I would nick a leaf or two from both of those books*) – that kind of level of experimentation comes at a cost to the narrative, and wasn’t right for my project. Similarly, at the other pole of culture, I didn’t want to evoke the flavour of those ‘Choose Your Path’ books which flourished for a while in my youth (e.g. Fighting Fantasy; or my favourite, Lone Wolf). However fond I was of those back then, that approach wasn’t fit-for-purpose either. This project wasn’t about the ‘deciding the outcome of the story’. I did not want to give away complete authorial control.
However old-fashioned, I still believe in the power of storytelling, and the craft and responsibility of the storyteller. I have a penchant for prose stylists, but also have a weakness for a decent storyline, well-wrought characters, snappy dialogue, and emotional engagement. I want to be swept along by a story.
So, a rattling yarn, but one told with elan and a substructure of complexity – with a depth of ideas and research underpinning the (hopefully) purring prose.
And so I have used hypertextuality to allow for multiple narrative threads to co-exist. I like the idea of each link being a kind of portal to a pocket universe, to another modality or mindset. It bestows upon the reader agency – one that is intrinsic to the novel, for The Knowing, is, on one level, an epistemological enquiry: in plain English – What do we know? How do we know what we know? Why is some knowledge perceived as more valid than others? I, as the writer, was driven by my epistemological hunger (following the idea of ‘write what you want to know’, and developing ‘archive fever’ in my PhD research). The characters are driven by their desire to know. Janey in particular is ‘gifted’ with the ‘knowing’ (Second Sight), which allows her to discover things beyond her experience or 5 senses. She uses this to access the memories of her ancestors, the McEttrick Women, via the heirlooms kept within her mother’s old biscuit tin. Deploying metonymic representation, each ancestor is symbolized by an object. When Janey holds them in her hand, she receives a download of memory. This psychometry I wished to suggest in the way the reader taps on the image in the e-book – which allows them to access that ‘voice’.
Critically, the choice to do this is driven by the reader’s desire to know.
I also like creating visual furniture within the novel – paratextuality – being fond of marginalia, and having discovered, within Robert Kirk’s journals and manuscripts many fascinating and revealing examples. For me, a book is an aesthetic experience as much as a narrative one – this may seem at odds to some with the concept of an ‘e-book’, but even within that format it is still possible to enjoy stunning cover art, fine font, illustrations, and so forth. And so I have delighted in creating motifs for each of the characters, and labouring endlessly over the minutiae of formatting and text navigation.
Also, I do not find the use of an e-reader antithetical to this aesthetic consideration, but intrinsic – for it captures the tension I revel in, between the ancient and the modern. To read the voice (sometimes actual, sometimes fictionalised) of a 17th Century Scottish minister in such a state-of-the-art form makes it more poignant – the ghost in the machine. And the hidden magic of the e-reader echoes the journal that Janey receives from Kirk – written on ‘Janus paper’, which allows a reader to view what the writer is scribing upon its twin, wherever in this world or another they are, attuning to the consciousness of that reader and translating accordingly.
This allows for a ‘hybrid’ voice, somewhere between Kirk’s 17th Century idiom, and Janey’s own – a deliberate choice, for I decided that coherency and fluency was more important to the narrative effect than strict accuracy to Kirk’s idiolect and ecolect. Of course, I have tried to evoke it – and having transcribed his monograph, and poured through his notebooks, I am deeply familiar with it – but have tempered its more obscure eccentricities (erratic spelling; idiosyncratic rendering of Gaelic; obscure references) in favour of clarity.
Still, I hope his, and the other voices I have ‘channelled’ come across convincingly – they certainly felt real to me as I wrote them. Time and time again, it feels like one is merely the amanuensis, taking down the character’s dictation – in the way that Robert Campbell, Kirk’s cousin, took down the minister’s words as he lay upon his sickbed, the words that would become The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – a lost version of which I would go onto discover in the archives, but that is another story…
The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring is published as an ebook on 20th March and will be available via Amazon’s Kindle store.
*Joyce’s heteroglossia; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘leaves’ motif – fragments of text, of experience – symbolized by Janey’s heirloom wunderkammer, her box of leaves.