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Born of Myth

Author: R.T. Budhram

I. The Chase

The import of the chase took less time to register in her brain than it would have in that of a human. Her claws grasped onto the closest branch of the pine she hurdled toward. She achieved balance with her tail, which stretched straight, bushy and copper-colored. His scent reached her on the breeze, and she chortled in satisfaction; it had been the thing that won her over, the aroma that reminded her of the drey where she had birthed her first litter. The luster of his fur, all black, also drew her attention. The rarity of such a coat among Red squirrels would ensure the kits of her next litter were the envy of any who crossed their paths.

“Hé, Drilltooth, hurry!” Her squawk echoed among the conifers, but she did not care. “I am going to leave you behind!” Yet she would wait here for him until he nearly reached her, and the chase would continue. They had been at it for almost two days.

Drilltooth answered her squawk with one of his own. “I shall catch you this time, Vera.” The plume that was his tail lashed when he said her name. Vera entered a trance while she observed the grace of his flight among the branches. Following the rustle of each landing and the scraping of his claws across the bark, he sailed through the air and descended all the time. When he reached the neighboring tree, he scurried up its trunk until he met Vera’s level. He dashed along a bough that connected to the one upon which she sat, and her trance broke. She clawed her way to the base of the arm, and instead of leaping to the next tree she ran from him up, down, and around the diameter of the trunk. The two squirrels created a storm of scratching noises while they raced among a web of outcropping sprigs.

Vera allowed him to trail only a foot in her wake. She squeaked when she thought that his eight-inch body presently, continuously, occupied the space left by her own. His breathing sounded in her ears, and the white fur on her belly lifted from the bark when he squawked at her without warning. There were no words in the harshness of his sound; there was only yearning. Vera lost control of the situation, and Drilltooth seized it. He clutched her about the chest. The chase was over. The sun was about to set.

It was late December in Northern Alberta. The birch trees were presently naked, but snowfall would increase in the coming months. Red squirrels, who otherwise lived solitary lives outside of kit rearing, would find partners with whom to huddle for survival. Nestled deep in their dens, they would shiver inside the trunks of trees. One’s warmth would fade into another’s, and, for a night, the two would be united against the elements. In the morning, the guest would take his leave. Their paths would cross again.

Drilltooth reclined on the base of a bough against the trunk, his feet pointed upward. “Ma chère,” he clicked. “How are you going to be this winter? Will you have gathered enough?”

“I have been very diligent, monsieur. The little ones will not want for anything.” Vera stood a few paces from him, but his piney scent drew her closer. “Why do you call yourself Drilltooth?”

“Because, petite amie. I gnaw at the trees, more than anyone else. I am always causing them destruction, yet they continue to grow. You will not find cleaner teeth in this land.”

Her tail twitched, and she averted her gaze. “Drilltooth… You are beautiful.”

At that moment, the sound of a gunshot traveled through the forest. The two of them stood upright and motionless except for their eyes, which flitted hither and thither. They scanned both the branches and the ground forty feet below. Their noses nearly missed the scent of gun smoke. The hoot of a Great Grey Owl pervaded the silence. It haunted them with its prowess. A series of footsteps commenced, and then they ceased.

“These days, humans hunt often.”

“They have been driven from their Metal Trees, which stand no more.”

“Since the Green Explosions, some of them live here. They, too, are hunted.”

“Their world has ended. And now they hunt everyone.”

Vera and Drilltooth recited this exchange as they had done previously but with different partners throughout their two years of life. Their mothers had taught them of new dangers with these words. The owls, cats, weasels, and wolves, too – Everyone knew.

II. Predator and Prey

The sun blared directly overhead, and Vera hopped from this shadow to that. The depth of snow varied from one spot to another because the trees caught some of the downfall. Her cheeks bulged with pine seeds, which she had pried from the fallen cones with her claws and incisors. Before working on the pinecones, she had sniffed them for bugs; if they were infested, she ate both the seeds and the insects rather than storing the former. She needed to eat more than the typical pound of food per week, for her intense hunger accompanied the movements in her belly. Vera knew no fewer than three kits would arrive inside of a week.

Early February brought with it less frequent but more focused thoughts of Drilltooth. It had been five weeks since they parted ways high in the pine tree where her present litter had been conceived. Before he left, he had nuzzled his head against her cheek and marked her with his scent. Her faintness had magnified with the clicks of his last words. “Adieu, ma cœur. We shall meet again in this life, to be sure!” He had smiled; his teeth had glistened. “Keep warm. Keep safe!” Then he had bounded through the branches, a black shadow in the moonlight. He was as a creature born of myth , she thought. Drilltooth .

“Vera!”

It was a booming chirp, and she twisted around.

Can it be you?”

The newcomer was a Grey squirrel. Her coat blended shades of heather and mahogany, and she was haphazardly groomed. Similar to Vera, her stomach and the underside of her tail were white. Her black eyes seemed to protrude.

Amélie!” Vera saw that she, too, was pregnant. “How good it is to see you!”

Amélie sauntered near, and the two embraced. Each knew that any meeting could be their last. Yet Vera was assured of her friend’s will to survive, for Amélie had managed to escape the previous year from the closest Green-bombed city. The refugee’s near-death state had frightened Vera no less than the strange words the former had muttered during her fever dreams. In her delirium, Amélie had spoken of the hunters of humans: Scaled Men with teeth that dripped and tails that lashed. After Vera had nursed her new friend back to health, the Grey squirrel chirped of bombs with emerald blasts. She had said they kept poison from the earth and that the Scaled Men told her this. “They told everyone,” Amélie had said, “Not with sounds but with thoughts. Everyone knew.”

Her words still caused Vera to shiver with fear and to wring her paws together. She had been glad to see Amélie leave, but now she exulted at this reunion.

I see you are almost ready to bear,” Amélie clicked. From her left cheek she produced three mushrooms, each bathed in brilliant amber with a flourish of auburn about the crest. They smelled of the earth, rich with nutrients. “Take these, mon ami. They will nourish your kittens.”

Ah!” Vera gasped with delight. “C’est incroyable! They are lovely! And so much rarer now with the cold. Are you positive you do not need them for your own little ones?”

Take them. I have more.”

Vera threw her forearms around the startled Amélie. “Merci.”

It is the least I could do.”

A twig snapped fewer than fifteen feet away from the pair. Vera and Amélie bolted in opposite directions toward the nearest tree. From behind a cedar adjacent to the one to which Amélie sprinted, a lynx pounced. It issued a scream that tingled Vera’s spine as she raced up her birch. The pound of its claws against the tree bark exploded in her chest. When Vera turned upon her bough, she saw that Amélie’s tail was caught under the cat’s paw. Specks of black dappled its white and gray fur, and the muscles beneath its skin pulsed as it worked to secure its grip. The lynx’s hind legs shifted position for better support while its left foreleg hugged the trunk to remain upright.

The Grey squirrel squealed and struggled. The din of her scratching forced Vera to recoil. Amélie’s tail was pinned between the middle two claws; it was the predator’s pad that trapped her. In order to pierce through her tail, the cat lifted its paw for a millisecond. The squirrel clawed up the cedar in a frenzy, too quickly for the lynx to follow. The rage in the feline’s scream chased Amélie as she flew away among the trees. The sound seemed to rip the air about Vera’s ears, and she watched, frozen, as the lynx spotted her. It bounded for the base of her birch, and she heard words in the rumble of its growl.

I shall catch you this time.”

The kits writhed in her womb. She dashed up the tree and did not stop until she reached the location of her closest den, a kilometer away.

III. Ratatoskr

Hours later, after she emerged at sunset, Vera spotted Drilltooth bathing at the edge of the lake near her home. She thought he was a gift from Providence to quell her fear of death. He fluttered at the periphery of her vision, and his black silhouette stung her eyes. She moved until their shadows touched. “Monsieur.” The chirp hit a low pitch, and Vera’s tail descended to the snow. She tittered.

They huddled together in her drey, a nest made of twigs, dead leaves, and the remaining fur from her last molt. She loved the smell of the leaves as they decomposed. The odor amplified in their warmth; it mingled with the must of her scent and with the freshness of his. In the hollow of her trunk, they abandoned their defenses. Drilltooth yawned.

“The little ones will arrive soon,” she clicked. “They scratch and thump like rabbits. They are eager to see the world, mon ange.”

“You are frightened.”

“Oui.”

He shifted farther into the blanket of her fat. “This new world is not so different, ma chaton. Only, the humans have become prey to those from the stars. Or, perhaps they have been here all along. I do not know. I suspect.”

“Here?”

“Earth, ma chère.”

Vera did not fathom his meaning, but neither did she press him. She could not keep her thoughts from the kits who grew inside her. “Will the little ones survive? These days, the danger does not stop. It never stops growing. The babies seem to know.”

“They know nothing, ma minette. They will all reach six years. You will see them. They will all shine with beauty.” He nuzzled his nose into her ear. “You will see. They will smell like you.”

“What if they die?”

Drilltooth’s black, bottlebrush tail curled about her back, and he lowered his head to the leaves. “Everything dies, mon ange.” Vera searched his face when she heard the note of melancholy. His eyes glimmered in the darkness.

He turned to her and chirped. “But there is rebirth. In the leaves. And in the grass. It all comes round.” He paused. “Death is nothing.”

“It is everything.”

“It is a veil. A sheer veil, mon amour. You know that.”

Vera felt her anxiety evaporate. She breathed deeply and smirked. “What is your real name?”

His laughter bounced off the walls of her den, a series of squeaks that made her beam. “Why must you know?” He hesitated. “Please do not laugh. My name is Ratatoskr.”

The name was taken from legend, she knew. Ratatoskr had been a horned squirrel who scaled and descended the Great Tree in the forest across the ocean. He had carried messages between the Eagle above and the Snake below, gnawing away at the Tree all the while.

“I am fond of it,” she clicked. “The name suits you perfectly, monsieur.”

Soon thereafter, sleep caught the pair unawares. Night fell among the conifers and their cousins.

IV. Black on White

The morning sun danced on the lake and glowed in the droplets about Ratatoskr’s ears. Vera had joined him at the edge of the lake; she did not want to see him leave. She had already begun to count time until their next meeting. But squirrels must live alone, she thought. We are solitary creatures. Vera would care for the kits until they reached three months of age, however. The knowledge seemed to swell in her chest.

Ratatoskr shook the water from his fur, and Vera followed suit. The light reflected on the snow and warmed them both. She tasted the mixed scent of the pine seeds, thimbleberries, and catkins she had buried nearby, a foot into the earth. The songs of the passerines drifted in and out of harmony but floated all the time among predators and prey alike.

His eyes focused on the copper of her coat and the white brilliance in the bulge of her abdomen. Vera, too, slipped into a trance, the familiarity of which she found exclusive to Ratatoskr’s power over her. Yet, at this moment, she noticed that his eyes had begun to dart in all directions. She flew into the air at the explosion of his squawk, “RUN!”

After the gunshot, Ratatoskr’s body sank into the snow. Vera did not see the girl crouched behind the berry bush, nor did she smell her. The squirrel’s surroundings blurred during the infinite journey to her den, only ten feet away. She thought time had reversed and imagined the seconds dripping into a kind of negative realm where death became life. In this world, everything was nothing. And nothing was everything.

* * *

Four days after her escape, the intensity of Vera’s grief lightened with the birth of her three pink kits. At the first sign of their fur, she would delight in the complete blackness of the two smaller females. The larger male would also grow a black coat, but the whiteness of his underside would dazzle her. It was then that Vera would name him. He was, after all, born of myth.

Annotated Works Cited

American red squirrel.” Wikipedia: The Free Encycopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2 Dec. 2012. 10 Dec. 2012 . Web. Taxonomy, description, distribution, behavior (including feeding and reproduction, dispersal and survival), as well as a gallery of American red squirrels are provided.

Conifer.” HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks, Inc. 2012.10 Dec. 2012 . Web. This site provided information about trees and shrubs in the conifer family. It also supplied a detailed illustration of a typical pinecone. This illustration shows how pine seeds are stored within pinecones.

Coniferous Forest.” Earth Observatory. Paul Przyborski, webmaster. Warren Wiscombe, NASA official. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. 11 Dec. 2012 . Web. This page gave information regarding the weather and vegetation of the northern boreal forest in Beaverlodge, Alberta, Canada.

Dahlstrom, Kendra. “How Do Squirrels Mate?” eHow. Demand Media, Inc. 2012. 10 Dec. 2012 . Web. This site provided information about the mating call, the “chase” leading up to intercourse, the method of intercourse, kitten care, and the mating seasons of squirrels.

Lawless, Laura K. “French Terms of Endearment – Termes d’affection.” About.com. 2012. 11 Dec. 2012 . Web. This site provided a list of French terms of endearment as well as appropriate modifiers and information about usage.

Mano, Carlos. “The Differences in Male and Female Squirrels.” eHow. Demand Media, Inc. 2012. 10 Dec. 2012 . Web. This page supplied information regarding squirrel genitalia, the roles of each sex in kitten rearing, and the different mating habits of each sex.

Ratatoskr.” Wikipedia: The Free Encycopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 17 June 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2012 . Web. This page gave information about the mythical Norse figure Ratatoskr. It includes etymology, attestations, and theories.

The Squirrel Hunter’s Page. 10 Dec. 2012 . Web. The page supplied information about general squirrel biology, including aspects of the animal’s teeth, eyes, ears, tail, fur, diet, and sense of smell. Details regarding hoarding habits, nests and territory, and reproduction are also provided.

The Squirrel Place. 2012. 10 Dec. 2012 . Web. This site provided information regarding the physical characteristics of red squirrels and their feeding habits. A large assortment of “interesting squirrel facts” follows this information. These facts include information about grooming, mating, brain size, etc.

Artist’s Statement

Science fiction, for me, involves a limitless realm of possibility. This idea may have been more relevant to the genre before the onslaught of scientific innovation; it may have had more to do with myth or fantasy. But as we have seen in the world of Ian Watson’s “The World Science Fiction Convention of 2080,” science surfaces as a hindrance to imagination. Avenues of possibility lessen within the confines of scientific theory. SF writers must work within the limits of accumulated discovery. That is, unless they choose to draw inspiration from myth and straddle the divide between science fiction and fantasy.

It may have been a monumental task, but such was my intention with “Born of Myth.” For me, the personification of animals presented the perfect opportunity to do so. The idea of imagining animals with the characteristics of humans seems to have roots in fantasy. Yet, the closer I got to building their realistic world and adhering to the biology and ecology of squirrels, the closer I got to science fiction.

Ultimately, I believe I reached the heart of sci-fi with the character of Ratatoskr. His ties to mythology, as well as his semi-divine aura, seem to signify a point of origin for both fantasy and SF in the story. The relationship among the three also mirrors that of the history of the genre. This interplay has come to inform my understanding of science fiction. I wanted to include this in my story in addition to the kinds of feelings the genre has the power to elicit in its devotees. Vera feels a strong sense of wonder in Ratatoskr. He piques her curiosity in the same way a great piece of SF piques mine.

The aliens (or not?) and the apocalypse were both sparsely developed and therefore reflected the importance to which I hold such concepts in SF. They were very useful devices, however, to develop the story’s prominent themes of life, death, and rebirth.

DMU Timestamp: March 28, 2013 23:38





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