Ragnarok. PAUL PARK

Paul Park lives with his wife, Deborah Brothers, and their children in North Adams, Massachusetts. He teaches at Williams College, where his mother and father also taught. He became prominent in SF in the late 1980s with the publication of his first three novels, The Starbridge Chronicles: Soldiers of Paradise (1987), Sugar Rain (1989), and The Cult of Loving Kindness (1991). He went on to write a variety of challenging novels in and out of genre, and short stories collected in If Lions Could Speak (2002). His major project in the last decade has been the four-volume fantasy of an alternate world where magic works— A Princess of Roumania (2005) and its sequels, The Tourmaline (2006), The White Tyger (2007), and The Hidden World (2008). There was once in the 1980s a fine SF novel, Winter’s Daughter, by Charles Whitmore, a post-catastrophe story told in the form of the Icelandic sagas. Perhaps this is the tradition into which the present story fits.

“Ragnarok” was published at Tor.com, and this is perhaps its first appearance in print. It is a stanzaic narrative written in the style of the Icelandic saga, set in a post-apocalyptic future. We think it’s a knockout.

There was a man, Magnus’s son,Ragni his name. In ReykjavikStands his office, six stories,Far from the harbor in the fat past.Birds nest there, now abandoned.The sea washes along Vesturgata,As they called it.In those daysRagni’s son, a rich man,Also a scholar, skilled in law,Thomas his name, took his wifeFrom famished Boston, far away.Brave were her people, black-skinned,Strong with spear, with shield courageous,Long ago.Lately nowThe world has stopped. It waits and turns.Fire leaps along the hill.Before these troubles, Thomas took her,Black Naomi, belly big,To Hvolsvollur where he had land,A rich farm before the stream,Safe and strong.In the starving years.There was born, Thomas’s son,Eirik the African, as they called him.Hard his heart, heavy his handAgainst the wretches in the ruined towns,Bandits and skraelings beyond the wall,Come to plunder, kill and spoil,Over and over.Every night,Thomas stands watch, wakeful and sure,Guarding the hall with his Glock Nine.Forty men, farmers by day,Cod-fishermen from the cold coast,Pledge to shelter, shield from harmWhat each man loves, alone, togetherThrough the winter.When spring thawsThe small boughs, buds unpackFrom the red earth. Eirik passesInto the fields. The fire weedsMove around him, arctic bloomsAnd purple bells. Below the ricks,He finds Johanna, Johan’s daughter,Guests at the farm.At his father’s houseHe’d sometimes seen her, slim and fair,Ripening too, a tall primrose.He draws her down with dark hands,Meaning no harm, but honor only.Rich is her father, in Reykjavik,Rich is her cousin, with cod boatsIn Smoke Harbor.Happy then,Proud Naomi offers her hallFor the wedding feast, but she’s refusedFor no reason. Rather insteadJohanna chooses the little churchAt Karsnes, close to home,South of the city along the shore.High-breasted,Snake-hearted,Sick with pride, she predictsNo trouble. Near that place,In Keflavik airport, cruel JacobusGathers his men, gap-toothed Roma,Thieves and Poles, pock-marked and starving.The skraeling king calls for silenceIn the shattered hall.Shards of glass,Upturned cars, chunks of concreteMake his throne. There he sitsWith his hand high. “Hear me,” he saysIn the Roma language, learned from his fatherIn distant London. “Long we’ve foughtAgainst these killers. Ghosts of friendsFollow us here.”Far to the east,Black Eirik, in the same hour,Walks by the water in Hvolsvollur.By the larch tree and the lambing pens,Thomas finds him, takes his sleeve,Brings his gift, the Glock NineWith precious bullets, powder and brimstoneFrom his store.Father and sonTalk together, until NaomiComes to find them. “Fools,” she calls them.(Though she loves them.) “Late last nightI lay awake. When do you goTo meet this woman, marry herBeyond our wall? Why must you rideTo far Karsnes?”Cruel Jacobus,Waits to answer, in KeflavikHand upraised. “These rich menGoad us to act. Am I the lastTo mourn my brother, mourn his murder?The reckless weakling, Thomas Ragnisson,Shot him down, shattered his skullOutside the wallIn Hvolsvollur,With his Glock Nine. Now I hearAbout this wedding. His black sonScorning us, splits his strength,Dares us to leave him alone in KarsnesIn the church. Christ JesusPunishes pride, pays them backMy brother’s murder!”At that momentBlack Naomi bows her headTries to agree. Eirik turns toward her,Groping to comfort. “God will protectThe holy church. Hear me, mother,Jesus will keep us, Johanna and me.”Then he strips the semi-automaticFrom its sheath.Some time laterEmbracing her, he unbolts, unlocksThe steel door, draws its bars,Rides north beneath the barrier,Built of cinderblocks and barbed wire,Twenty feet tall. With ten menHe takes the road toward Reykjavik,West to KarsnesOn the cold sea.There the pastor prepares the feast,Lights the lamp in the long dusk.In the chapel porch, pacing and readyEirik waits, wonders and waits.Where’s the bride, the wedding party?Where’s her father fat Johan?No one knows.Night comes.Checking his watch, counting the hours,Eirik frets. At first lightHe rides north through the ruined towns,Empty and burned, broken and looted.Abandoned cars block his path.The hill rises to HallgrimskirkjaAt the city’s heart.Here at the summitAbove the harbor, the high towerJabs the sky. Johan’s hall,Rich and secure, is silent now.The dogs slink out the door,Baring their teeth, biting at bones.At Leif’s statue we leave our horses,Wait for something,Sounds from the hall.The concrete porch piles to heavenThe door’s wrenched open, all is still.No one shouts, issues a challengeAs we approach. Eirik the AfricanDraws his pistol. The danger’s past.No ones left. We know for certainOn the threshold.There insideLies Thorgeir Grimsson, throat cut.We find the others, one by oneAmong the benches in their marriage clothes.The bleached wool, black with blood,Polished stones, stained with it.Windows broken, birds flyIn the tall vault.Eirik, distraughtWatches the birds wind above him,Strives to find her, fair JohannaWhere she lies. Ladies and bridesmaidsDied in a heap, huddled together,Peeled and butchered at the pillar’s base.She’s not there; he searches fartherUp the aisle.UnderneathThe high altar, he uncoversFat Johan, father-in-law,But for this. There’s his body,Leaked and maimed below the organ,The wooden cross. Cruel JacobusTortured and killed him, kidnapped his daughterTwelve hours previous.Proud EirikTurns to listen in the long light.Out in the morning, his men callBeyond the door. Desperate to leaveThe stinking hall, holding his gun,He finds them there. Fridmund, his friend,Shows what they caught outside in the plaza,A wretched skraelingSkulking on Njalsgata,A teen-aged boy, bald alreadyBack bent, black-toothed,Hands outstretched. Stern and heavyEirik stands over him, offering nothingBut the gun’s mouth. Meanwhile the boyLowers his head, laughs at his anger,Spits out blood.“I expect you knowAll that happened. Here it wasThat King Jacobus carried the girl,Stole her away, struggling and screaming,Kicking and cursing when he kissed her.Now he’s punished, proud Johan,Who took this church, chased us away,Made it his hall.Who among usSteals such a thing, thieves though we are,Jesus’ house, Hallgrimskirkja?Now you threaten me, though I’m helpless,With your Glock Nine. Go on, shoot me.Cunt-mouth, coward—I dare you.Jesus loves me. Laughing, I tell you.Fuck you forever.”Fridmund BjarnssonPulls back his head, bares his throat.But the African offers a judgment.“Murder’s too kind. Cut him loose.Let him crawl to his king, Jacobus the Gypsy.If he touches her, tell him I’ll kill him.Bring him this message …”But the skraelingSpits on his boots. “Say it yourself,”The boy scolds. “Better from you.Besides, you’ll see him sooner than meIf you ride home to Hvolsvollur!”Furious now, fearing the worst,Eirik Thomasson turns from him,Shouts for his horse,A shaggy gelding,Stout and faithful. Sturla’s his name.Climbing up, calling the others,Eirik sets off, out of the plaza,Down the hill, Dark are his thoughts,As he rides east, hurrying homeUnder Hekla, the hooded mountain,Steaming and boiling.Sturla toilsAlong the asphalt, eighty kilometers,All that day. Dark is the skyWhen Eirik and Sturla, outstripping the rest,Reach the farm. The fire burnsUnder the clouds. Clumps of ashFall around them. Furious and empty,Eirik dismounts.Without moving,He stands a minute by Sturla’s flankAnd the split wall. Waiting, he listensTo the strife inside. Soon he unlimbersThe precious gun, the Glock Nine,Checks the slide, checks the recoil,Stacks the clip with steel bullets.Gusts of rainGather around him.Thunder crashes. Then he begins.A storm out of nothing strikes the gate.Men die among the horses,Shot in the head with hollow-points,Shot in the mouth for maximum damage.They shake their spears, scythes and axes,Swords and brands.In the burning rooms,Eirik kills them. By the cold stream,The crumbling barns, he kills more.Howling they turnin the hot cinders.Clip empty, he cannot reload,Seizes instead a skraeling axe.They circle around him, certain of triumph,Not for long.Near the porchOf his father’s hall, he finds their leader,Pawel the Bull, a Polack giant.Stripped to the waist, he stands his ground.Sword in hand, he swears and bellows.Tattooed and painted, he paws the mud.Now he charges, cuts and falters,Falls to his knees,Face split,Lies full-length. Lightning strikesOn Hekla’s side. Howling with rage,The skraelings escape, scatter in darkness.Come too late, we can’t catch them,Let them go. Gathering hoses,We pump water, wet the timbersIn the rain.Or we roamAmong the dead, drag them outFrom the burned hall. Here they lieOn the wet ground, wives and children,Old men. Naomi standsAmong the living, leans away,Turns her face. Thomas is there,Blood spilled,Body broken,With the others. Eirik lays himBy the fire. Fridmund BjarnssonFinds the gun, the Glock NineBuried in mud, by the stream.“Here,” he says, holding it up.“I was scared the skraelings took it.Thank Jesus—”There by the fire,Eirik rebukes him. “Bullshit,” he says.“Close your mouth.” He climbs the porch,Raises his hands. Red are the doorposts,The frame behind him, hot with sparks.“God,” he repeats, “God be thanked.You know Johan, for Jesus’ sake,Took for his houseHallgrimskirkja,On the hill. He thought JesusCould sustain him, could preserve him,Save his daughter—don’t you see?I also, Eirik the African,Sank my faith in something empty—Thomas’s gun, the Glock Nine,Chrome barreled,Bone grip.But look now. Neither JesusNor my Glock is good enough.The rich hide behind their wallsIn Hvolsvollur. Who comes to help?But I will hike to Hekla’s top,Hurl my gun, heave it downInto the steam,And the steel bulletsAfter it. In the afternoonI’ll wreck this wall, winch it apart.Safety is good, grain in the fields,Green-house vegetables; vengeance is better.This I tell you: Time was,We were happy, here in Iceland.Cod in the sea,Snow on the mountain,Hot water in every house,Cash in our pockets, planes and cars,The world outside, waiting and close.Old men remember, mumble and mutter—That time’s gone, turned forever.The pools are drained, dams breached,Turbines wrecked,Ruined enginesStarved for oil. The sea risesBeyond Selfoss. You have seenThousands die, tens of thousands—The mind rebels, breaks or bends.Days ahead, the dim past,Forward, back ward, both the same,Wound together.At the world’s end,Jormungand, the great worm,Holds his tail between his jaws.Ragnarok rages around usHere, tonight, now, forever,Or long ago. Good friends,Remember it: men and skraelingsFought togetherAges past.So—tomorrow we’ll march westTo Keflavik. Jacobus waits.We’ll scour the coast, search for fighters,Heroes to help us, guide us home.Left behind, you’ll learn of us,Tell our legend, teach the truthOr invent itThe old way.Parse our lines upon the page:Two beats, then pause.Two more. Thumping heart,Chopping axe, and again.Not like the skraelings, with their long linesOf clap-trap, closing rhymes—Not for us.No more.Johanna’s alive. How I know,I don’t know. Don’t ask.But I swear I’ll bring her here,Avenge this.” Then he’s silent,Standing near the spitting fire,Under Hekla, in the rain.


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