They said of him that he would be watching. They said that from his mountain throne he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest. He brought to them seasons, sun and the rain, and he taught them dread. Where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky. Only in their terror would they pray. Only when faced with the evidence of his wrath had they reason to fear him.
They said he was a god.
They worshipped him, beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, even though they could not explain the meaning of sin. And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered their prayers.
From his great height among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was king, at least, of all he surveyed: his eyes ever open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man; unsleeping, watching the ages pass.
In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions. He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter, they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son who she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child. Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too. He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.
Centuries passed and the people prospered. Their numbers grew. They lost their fear of their god, spurning the myths of his children and proclaiming their faith to the mountain less often, while they committed greater and greater crimes in his name, and had no understanding of their wrongs.
There were a few, still, who pretended knowledge of him. They made effigies they insisted were true to his mortal form, they issued decrees they said he had written, and words they said he had spoken.
Those bold feet that first ascended the high watchtower they believed was his found no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence. The final knell. But he was watching, just as before.
Some claimed He lived within each one of them, others believed Him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky. Few knew the truth; that his home was where it had always been, beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.
Very few truly understood this relationship to man. They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he could give none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and compassionate image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must have an entity that was righteous and just.
With time he grew tired of the imperfect mortals that moved about him. Their treatment of fauna and flora that served him, the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh, their unnatural agriculture which used chemicals to burn his skin (for his skin was the land). He recognised signs of diminution in himself; for though with a shrug of his shoulders he might still send their dwellings tumbling, or charge the air with fire, or foment oceans to tempest, ice into rain, no-one came to pray to him.
He was forgotten.
One final card was yet to be played that would prove his power and send these creatures who could never be true custodians of his world to their destruction. Why did he withhold?. His impatience with them grew yet he shrugged his shoulders: he did not dispatch them. They vexed, but they did not infuriate. Why? Well, there was still something in his aged world to give him hope.
He had known her presence as she walked by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features of untainted innocence; one whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin. She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand the will of a god. In this girl, his ancient wisdom made him believe, there was a better future for his world; but as no-one now believed in him, and nor, at first, would she, he must show her the pathway back to truth; she must become mother to the family of a god which, this time, would make itself known. By an old and tried device of the gods, he reasoned to himself, he might make her his. He was unaware how his strength had ebbed – without belief a god has no power. In too many ways as he appeared to this girl and her man who had never prayed, he was almost mortal.
“I think,” Nadja said, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water; “You should leave the poor fish alone.”
“Do you?” the young man laughed. “So you would consign man’s most popularhobby to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?” He had set himself upon a tussock of grass beside her, his rods and creel clasped between his knees as he baited his hook.
“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point. You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by plucking them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back. Why?”
“Fish can’t feel pain.” Ben shaped to cast his line.
“Are you sure of that?”
“It’s been proven.”
“Not, I take it, by a fish.” Nadja sighed, because Ben’s blindness to all that was beautiful in the world made her sad. “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s a bird, a very big one, for a swan.” The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadja’s head on its way out into the current. “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”
“I like the river, and I like you. Is it me, or is he swimming towards us?”
“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it. Give it a sandwich.”
“I’m sure you shouldn’t….” Nadja’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen. They were eyes of intimate knowledge, bearing a message for her alone. It was all she could do to refrain from walking out into the water to meet it, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her. It wanted her to join it, to nestle in the white down of its feathers, to ride upon its snowy back. Reflected in shimmering perfection upon the water, the noble creature was drifting ever nearer.
“Oh, Ben!” It was so close to Nadja now she might only stretch a little to touch its head.
“Careful! It’s certainly hungry,” Ben warned. “They can attack you for food sometimes.”
Yet Nadja saw no aggression in those eyes, only invitation. Somehow it was no surprise to her that the swan should lower its noble head and extend its neck to lie against the length of her thigh. It breathed its contentment as, with nervous, uncertain hands she stroked feathers so close they were almost velvet. Nor was she shocked when it raised itself, its wings arching slowly, very gently moving forward. She rose to her feet, yielding to the persuasion that coaxed her into the warmth of that embrace. For one moment it seemed she might be completely engulfed in the cloak of those powerful wings.
Only for a moment…
The great bird shuddered as Ben’s creel, swung with all the force he could muster, struck it upon its back. It turned instantly, hissing anger as Nadja staggered aside. It swept those wings with no hint of their former gentleness, scything into Ben’s ribs so hard the wind was knocked from his lungs. Reared upon its grey legs, drawn to its full height the swan loomed over Ben like a white cloud and eyes which just a moment before were blinded by love were twin orbs of lightning, afire with fury. Injured and in pain, Ben almost fell as the swan, far from retreating to the river as he expected, advanced upon him. Clear of the water its body was exposed and Ben, alarmed as he was by its aggression, was not done yet. Stepping inside those flailing wings he delivered a blow to the creature’s body so fierce it was thrown backward into the water – so fierce as to sink deep into feathers and flesh and bone beneath. With that single blow the god of the rocks discovered a dreadful truth: that a god devoid of veneration is no god at all. His transformation into this great bird had been his final miracle. He was mortal.
In its panic at that discovery and with its dream of love reduced to a sad fantasy the bird plunged back into the river, scrabbling through the shallows in search of deeper water, finding depth, swimming fast with no sense of direction. In its distraction it ran its beak through the healing stream to deaden the hurt in its body. A temptation, a mere scrap, skipped by on the current. The swan took it in.
“It’s taken my hook.” Ben cried, regaining his balance. “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”
“Oh no! No! Do something!” Nadja rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan. For a few dreadful seconds the bird churned the water as it discovered its plight and thrashed wildly against the line, then as suddenly as it had been taken it was gone. Running on the surface on desperate feet it gained the air. Graceful even when so wounded, its neck crooking as it tried to shake the metal hook free, it ascended, and all Nadja could do was watch it depart. She rounded on Ben. “I could have got to it. Why didn’t you wait?”
“I cut the line. I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”
“You let it go.” Nadja wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed. “You condemned it.”
Ben pleaded with her. He’d had to do something, he told her – he was being attacked. “It wasn’t my fault it took the line!”
“it was your fault the hook was in the water in the first place. Your hobby!” Nadja exclaimed scornfully, “Don’t follow me!”
She turned from Ben to walk home alone. As she walked the grass around her feet turned to brown, and young though the year might have been, leaves cascaded from the trees. The wind grew stronger as a different darkness fell.
“Another one?” Baldai asked.
“The third in this cycle.” Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen. “Most regrettable. It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase. Statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid. We’re having some success, but almost entirely with aquatic solutions. Land-based life forms are simply too fallible. It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”
“That is possible, of course.” Baldai admitted. “However, there’s nothing to be done. Is he recovering?”
“To a point, I suppose. Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been entombed in river mud for three weeks before we could bring him up. The physical recovery is good, but…” Prokator made a gesture of futility; “his psychological makeup has completely burned out. He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”
“And that?” Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet: “What shall we do with that?”
“Oh, dispose of it. There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”
© Frederick Anderson 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content
Photo credits: Swan, by Balog from Pixabay, Featured image:
Mountain, by David Mark from Pixabay