How long I traveled I have no knowledge. When you have lost everything on earth for which you ever cared, distance—and time—become two foreign elements. To a man bereaved of all as I was, distance and time are only words.
For me then, and also now, only one word any more can exist:
The god Orkrem.
I think three seasons had fled over the lands, and by then I was far away from anything I had ever known. The leaves were falling thick and red as blood when the old woman met me on the path.
“Where you go, warrior?” she asked, flirting with her old eyes as crones do, as if she is your mother, or your aunt.
“North,” I said.
“Oh,” said she. “To the mountain towns.”
It was beyond the towns I was heading, but I nodded. Then she said, “Watch for lizards, warrior.”
“Never be impatient,” she said, “with any that would help. Watch for lizards.”
“Thank you, pretty auntie,” carefully I said. For even then, sometimes I would take care.
But she only scowled. Behind her face of tree bark and black pearl eyes, I glimpsed a maiden with skin like snow and a rose for a mouth.
Then she was gone, and so was I.
Winter was coming on, and I had reached again another land when I met the second woman. And she was so ancient she made the first like a girl. She had no hair and her flesh was lacquered ivory. She was formed of bone and briar.
“Well then, warrior,” she said. “These mountains are high enough.”
I was past all the towns by then. The clouds often descended and touched the ground. I stood now in a cloud with her, and she and I peered at each other. Her eyes were not black pearl but the heads of white vipers—also blind she must be.
“Not quite so high,” I found I said.
“So you must go still higher? Only the sky is there.” I offered nothing. Then she said: “But the upper air is a country too. Beware of lions as you go.”
Out it came before I had rein on it. “Not lizards then. Lions.”
“Oh, there are lizards,” she said. “But there are lions too.”
“They will be no worse than life.”
“Only one thing is worse,” she softly said.
This was no question, nor did I answer. But in my head a voice spoke loudly as a beaten metal shield. The god is worse.
He. Orkrem is worse.
And she nodded, the ancient woman, as if she heard. And then she said, “If you were my grandson I would lesson and warn and train you, I would. But he died.”
“And women die too,” she replied. “The earth is all to die in, not to live. Not many know. But you have learned that, warrior?”
“Be on your way then, son.”
I was not her son, nor her grandson. But her words cut me with the sharp blade of a terrible and unexpected tenderness. Kindness I did not want at all.
In the labyrinth of agony, no beauty must ever enter, not one single whisper of compassion. Or steel breaks like glass.
The mountains climbed like the crested backs of dragons, and I strove on. I knew very well where I must get to, if it were real.
Oh, since I was an infant I had heard them preach and sing of it.
In the stone temple I had sat with the other children, and by us our own true gods, our fathers and our mothers, all our kin. There we were instructed by the priests.
The world had been made for us by gods, of whom Orkrem was the greatest and the most inventive. He it was who had formed the clay of the earth, and dressed it with cunning pits and traps and varied dangers. He it was too who had fashioned humankind out of some supernal wax, forming our ancestors with slow, spiteful pinches of his fingers that had viciously hurt them. So that, ever after, we knew pain first and best, and our own babies were borne in pain, screaming and weeping even before they had the water for tears in them.
Orkrem was a harsh god.
Not a single priest said why—or knew not why to say. But the earth was to be our school of being harmed. We were to suffer here, and endure suffering. Other lesser gods, it was well known, had tried to make the earth beautiful, adorning it with charming and reassuring things—the loveliness of forests and seas, dawn and sunset, moon and stars, music of birdsong, flowers, honey and wine, and even the best gift of all, which was love. Animals too they had assembled in the world. But Orkrem, when he saw that, decreed animals must then feed on each other, and humankind must feed on the animals. To ensure the needfulness of that, Orkrem next adapted us so that we should have a physical necessity to devour meat, without which mostly we would not be healthy. Therefore even the animals came to harm and pain, and usually through us. Meanwhile Orkrem made certain otherwise we might not often, on any account, enjoy the beauties of the earth. He sent us diseases and anguishes; he sent us suspicion and jealousy and dread and murder. Even love he soured, turning it like cream, so it should fret us, and drive us mad in loss or denial. Suffer we must, and endure we must, and in the end die we must, most often in extremes of horror and agony. For pain was what we entered the earth to know, in all its forms, of body, mind and soul. Pain and despair.
And all the while, from screaming weeping birth to weeping shrieking death, we must praise, worship and bless Orkrem, who was easily offended. So that any slight wrong-doing we committed, even as a reaction to his evil woundings, or in desperation, having no other recourse once his will was enacted on us, we should after death be punished for.
With such awareness I grew up. As all have grown who live upon this earth.
Though, when young, incredulously, I doubted it. I have no notion as to why, the proofs were already before me. But I was in my spring. My blood-red fall, my winter, still to come.
So Orkrem, the Great Artist, set on to show me the veracity of priestly teachings.
At seven years of age I saw my sister, along with others, perish of a scabrous plague. At ten I watched my mother die in childbirth, and the baby within her. At twelve an enemy came and destroyed our village. I witnessed my father’s death. I and one brother were dragged away as slaves. In another place we were brutally versed in the arts of battle. We, like fools, and having no choice, allowed this, and came to shine. For these our conquering enemies then we grew up to fight as their champions, and helped win for them great renown. Freed at last due to our value, we achieved riches. We lived friendly among them, making ourselves forget they had slain our kin and were our foes. One day, I saw a young woman in the fields, gathering the sky-blue flowers for garlands. When she turned and gazed at me our hearts began to beat with the same tempo. It was the gift of the other god, who had brought love into the world, and at that time I so credited his power. Her skin was like snow and her mouth a rose, but her eyes were like the blue cornflowers. For her heart, Orkrem had made it. It was wax.
A few months after our wedding, she told me she was with child by me. And I rejoiced.
But as it happened, it was the child of my brother, since at him too had she gazed. And their hearts had also beaten as one. And this not fifty days after first I had her.
There are always those who will see and tell. They had seen, and soon they told. When the baby struggled out into the world it had the color of his hair, not mine. I let it live, as it screamed and tearlessly wept. Nor, as she screamed and shed her tears like a waterfall, did I kill her. Him though, my brother, him I meant to kill. But at the last I could not do it. I had killed so many men in my trade of war. And I had pictured his death, my brother’s, too well and too often. There is some other lesser god who creates this magic. His name is weakness.
Then I must run. I ran.
Some while after, in another place again, I worked the land, and with the horses, and going one day to a temple I confessed my crime of hateful blasphemy. For this they did not punish me. They had no need. They told me Orkrem would himself see to it, since I had cursed his name. The world was made to torture men, and they must suffer it all and always bless him. One step from this path, and he would chastise them worse, during life, and after life, forever.
Later, I went on my way from that country. For years I kept my wandering course.
One other woman I met in that time, and loved. She was unlike the other, being dark, and her eyes the color of good beer. We lived in some pleasure with each other half a year, before the scabrous plague came on in those parts. Walking back beside me from the field one night, she suddenly fell down without a prelude, and was dead by daybreak. I saw to her funeral and went away. From the moment I had met with her, I believe by then, I guessed she and I would not have long.
I suffered, and all other men suffered, and sometimes, if only briefly, I or they prospered. And as I went on through all of that, I noted how most other men, and women too, proceeded always in the same fashion. All told, you could not press a slender stick between them for the misery and injustice to which they fell prey, and which in turn they dealt. We were all of us equal. We were damned.
Finally, about my thirtieth year, I reached a temple of another sort. They took me in when, all vitality spent, I dropped like the dead at their threshold. And they were kind to me—kindness which, even at that hour, not yet had I learned was the cruelest and sharpest of life’s blades to cut and disable.
Presently the priest said quietly, “For us, we believe in that one god who brought love on to the earth. Believe in him, and nothing can defeat you.”
“What of death?” I asked him.
“Death least of all,” he told me. So sweet his face, and inwardly clean, as if his inmost soul had been washed in purest water. But less than a year after, I saw that face transfixed by a black-bleeding arrow, and all about a robber horde besieged the sacred house. I held him as in agony—what else—he died. And his weeping forgiveness of his god, the god of love, shattered what was left of any heart inside me.
When all had fallen then, black and burned, I fought away from the scene. And so went on with my wandering, going always north, and ever upward on the sloping land. For they had taught us in my youth that the master god, Orkrem, resides on the floor of the skies.
And Orkrem was, at that last, my only destination. If ever I had had any other goal, or could have done, seeing the ruling god is this world, any and all of it, the beginning and the end.
The tops of the mountains rose above the cloud, which I had not expected. The mountaintops were gray as sightless mirrors, and the skies, now winter began to stir its iron wings, far grayer.
Below, by day, those lower clouds yet nestled like forests of gray ash.
Above, by night, the stars were the razor tips of knives and swords, burnished and pointing through, every one hungrily focused on some human heart.
When last I had seen a green tree it had made me think of sickness, plague. When blue I had seen, the sky reminded me of faithless eyes.
And red was blood.
A last old woman met me on the track. And she was so old she had been wiped of anything, like as if she might have been a baby stretched like a string, and so peculiarly tall. Though her eyes were like dull yellow coins.
“None otherwhere to go, warrior,” said she, “but up in the sky.”
“Then that must be my road, granny,” I told her. “No use to warn you then,” she said. “For you were warned of lizards and lions and paid no heed.”
“Nor have I seen a single lizard since. Let alone any lion.”
She spat on the earth, but her spit was wholesome, and only like a drop of bright water. It was almost like a courtesy when she spat. A tenderness that had no kindness, and could be borne.
“There have been lizards aplenty,” she said. “They have run under your feet, and over your body as you lay sleeping. And through your body they have run, as if through a long cave or a deserted house, and through your brain they have run and in and out your dreams, as if through a high room in a tower. And many their lions have followed you, smearing the waste of their kill in your footsteps, and breathing their hot stinking breath into your nose and mouth when you slumbered, and stood on you they have, heavy as mill-stones, and torn your skin with their claws.” She sighed, rustily. “But you saw and heard and felt nothing of any of it. The heavens crashed on your head and you missed it. The sea came up the hill and drowned you and you never even felt its wet. Go on then. Go up the sky.”
“I shall, granny.”
“I am never your grandmother. I am only the very final thing of humankind you will see before you meet your god.”
Then she was gone, and so was I.
But I had learned not one thing from her, as nor had I from the other two.
No man can climb up the sky.
Yet I reached the topmost peak and stood on its flat table, staring upward.
All round, beneath, the lands fell away together, but they were like a game-board, with their colors of plague and faithlessness and blood. The world no more real for me.
In the sky the higher clouds ascended like a stairway. I stretched up my arms, and for hours on end I bellowed, till my voice was gone. I called his name: Orkrem! Orkrem! And then I whispered his name: Orkrem.
Night bloomed its black poison-flower and the stabs of the stars pierced out.
Then a wind woke in the core of the sky.
It came forth on me like a giant bird, a dragon. Roaring, it clutched me, and whirled me off the peak.
No longer, me, with a voice to blaspheme him, only my whisper to say now he would dash me to earth and break me. But this was not the way of it.
The sky wind thrashed me not down but upward, through the cloud and through the basement of the sky itself, and flung me headlong on the floor of a huge echoing chamber that was black as the void, yet lit as if with torches.
And when the wind was gone, and the noise of it emptied from my ears, I looked and saw I was in some colossal place like a temple of pillars, but carved out of the night itself. Far away down a long avenue, the slender moon was rising, on its side like a white boat. Swollen planets the colors of sickness and betrayal and war moved slowly through the vault.
I was in Orkrem’s house. The house of the god.
He did not come in for a while. Or he may have been there anyway, unseen and unfelt. He might have hung in the tiniest drip of moonlight, like a spider in its web. Or curled about the pillars like a sort of night mist, visibly invisible to me.
But then he did come in.
He made no sound. He did not even manifest—appear, as a flame would, struck all at once on a lamp. He was not. Then he was.
I pulled myself off the floor of his house, which was a solid floor, like marble—but it was air. I stood and looked at him, in his face.
He was high as the house, wide as the house. Yet too he was only the height of a gigantic man, not that much—a span or two—taller and bigger in frame than I. But he was the lizard, and the lion. I can describe him no otherwise. I fail to be able to describe him. Only for that—lizard and lion—or that his face was a shout like the rumble of an earthquake. And his eyes put out the light of the razor stars.
And then my voice returned.
Did he give it me? For he spoke to me, and he asked What do you want of me?
And then I bellowed once more at him, bellowed as out on the mountain before the wind lifted me up.
“Orkrem—give me my life!”
The conflagration of his eyes flickered.
“No,” I answered. I knew how to speak it. I had rehearsed my words so long. “No human thing can live in your world. Your world is death-alive, but life it never is. We are born into death, and live in death, until we die—in death—and if, after all these dyings, we are with you—then still it is death. Death through eternity, agony and anguish, terror and despair. Orkrem—give me my life.”
When I grew silent I heard how the temple house rocked and rang from my uproar, and from my rage and grief, that too. No single man, even one lifted into the sky, could make such a passion and din. Instead it seemed I had brought with me the outcry of every human thing, and every beast, all the complaint of the earth that Orkrem had made for us to suffer horror in.
Time passed when I was done. But time, though still somewhat it seems I had measured it, meant nothing to me.
A moment or an hour or a night or a season went by.
And then the god was beside me, so near I might have stretched my hand and touched his lizard-lion form, or his face of earthquake and volcano.
I never touched.
But he put up one hand, or as it might be one scaled and taloned paw. He passed this once across the visage of his godhead.
And then I saw. What…what did I truly see?
I saw his boiling and frustrated anger and his wretched hurt, I saw his tears that dropped like blazing rains. I saw into his mouth to his tongue bitten through in agony beyond bearing.
To me then, soft as snow, he said this:
“Your life I gave you, nor therefore can I give you it again. But as you have seen, and dared to tell me, my task I have Failed at. For this then, you shall have my task. You shall be me. You shall be a god. You shall make and plan and direct and rule and correct and master the world. It is all for you to do. To change as you will, to repair as you can, to alter hate to love and misery to happiness. To make a paradise on earth. It is with you. And now, at last, at last, I shall have peace.” With this he left me. But not I him.
A vast while I balanced there on heaven’s floor, between aether and earth. Enormous metamorphoses shook me, with a hideous gentleness. Yet as I took on the mantle and the sacraments of the immortal life he had cast off on me, I must consider what I had been shown.
Judging by what was evident in his wounds, and his wild prolonging sorrow, it must seem he had writhed in that way for aeons. He had not then, surely, as our teachings had it, begun with ill intent to us—or why mourn so, as if at the ruin, not the glory, of his work. Worse, it must seem he had been unable to put anything right, however the ruin had occurred. More likely I felt it to be, that at the start of all, he had tried to make all perfect in the world, and we perfect also, that we could be glad, and create there nothing ourselves but fine things.
Yet some happening there was—either in him, through the exhaustion of all his ceaseless care and labor, or even in us independently of him. And from that came the worm that gnawed on the honeycomb, till all was wormwood ever after. And he, god though he was, could not heal such sores.
That much I had sensed in the single instant when he uttered his ultimate word, which had been peace.
I have no means to grasp, even now I have not, if this were some ending trick he played on me. Or some beginning trick of my mind, transformed so fast from clay to supernal fire.
Nevertheless, just as my huge shout had done, that subtle ending word echoed on and on, here in the god house which is now mine, and which I have grown already great to fill.
I stand on the sky and the planets turn and the stars rip their long rents through the night. The moon will sink. The sun will rise.
I am the god.
I am the maker and master.
Before me I behold multitudinous possibilities, vista on vista, world on world. But so then, once, must he too have seen them, and tried them—maybe even to the giving of the gift of love—but he had failed. And then he wept and screamed and had bitten through his tongue. Until, finding me, he has taken me up, and shed on me the whole of what he could not do.
Such power is mine. Will I then work success here, where Orkrem never could, now I am Orkrem?
I am God.
I am Almighty.
I am afraid.