A Thin Child in Wartime
There was a thin child, who was three years old
when the world war began. She could remember,
though barely, the time before wartime when, as
her mother frequently told her, there was honey
and cream and eggs in plenty. She was a thin,
sickly, bony child, like an eft, with fine hair like
sunlit smoke. Her elders told her not to do this,
to avoid that, because there was 'a war on'. Life
was a state in which a war was on. Nevertheless,
by a paradoxical fate, the child may only have lived
because her people left the sulphurous air of a
steel city, full of smoking chimneys, for a country
town, of no interest to enemy bombers. She grew
up in the ordinary paradise of the English countryside.
When she was five she walked to school,
two miles, across meadows covered with cowslips,
buttercups, daisies, vetch, rimmed by hedges full
of blossom and then berries, blackthorn, hawthorn,
dog-roses, the odd ash tree with its sooty buds.
Her mother, when they appeared, always said 'black as ash-buds in the front of March'. Her mother's fate too was paradoxical. Because there was a war on, it was legally possible for her to live in the mind, to teach bright boys, which before the war had been forbidden to married women...
The thin child learned to read very early. Her mother was more real, and kinder, when it was a question of grouped letters on the page. Her father was away. He was in the air, in the war, in Africa, in Greece, in Rome, in a world that only existed in books. She remembered him. He had red-gold hair and clear blue eyes, like a god.
The thin child knew, and did not know that she knew, that her elders lived in provisional fear of imminent destruction. They faced the end of the world they knew. The English country world did not end, as many others did, was not overrun, nor battered into mud by armies. But fear was steady, even if no one talked to the thin child about it. In her soul she knew her bright father would not come back. At the end of every year the family sipped cider and toasted his safe return. The thin child felt a despair she did not know she felt.
The End of the World
The thin child thought less (or so it now seems)
of where she herself came from, and more about
that old question, why is there something rather
than nothing? She devoured stories with rapacious
greed, ranks of black marks on white, sorting
themselves into mountains and trees, stars, moons
and suns, dragons, dwarfs, and forests containing
wolves, foxes and the dark. She told her own tales
as she walked through the fields, tales of wild
riders and deep meres, of kindly creatures and evil
At some point, when she was a little older, she discovered Asgard and the Gods. This was a solid volume, bound in green, with an intriguing, rushing image on the cover, of Odin's Wild Hunt on horseback tearing through a clouded sky amid jagged bolts of lightning, watched, from the entrance to a dark underground cavern, by a dwarf in a cap, looking alarmed. The book was full of immensely detailed, mysterious steel engravings of wolves and wild waters, apparitions and floating women. It was an academic book, and had in fact been used by her mother as a crib for exams in Old Icelandic and Ancient Norse. It was, however, German. It was adapted from the work of Dr W. Wägner. The thin child was given to reading books from cover to cover. She read the introduction, about the retrieval of 'the old Germanic world, with its secrets and wonders...' She was puzzled by the idea of the Germans. She had dreams that there were Germans under her bed, who, having cast her parents into a green pit in a dark wood, were sawing down the legs of her bed to reach her and destroy her. Who were these old Germans, as opposed to the ones overhead, now dealing death out of the night sky? The book also said that these stories belonged to 'Nordic' peoples, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders. The thin child was, in England, a northerner. The family came from land invaded and settled by Vikings. These were her stories. The book became a passion.
Excerpted from Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt. Copyright © 2012 by A.S. Byatt. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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