Published in Tesseracts Fourteen in October, 2010
The ferret draped around my shoulders farted, and I laughed. One of the toga-clad old men turned to glare at me. I grinned back as widely as I could, showing him how I still had all my teeth. Disgusted, he turned back to his conversation. I could just guess what they were discussing in hushed voices: Why are we here? Who came first? Did we make man, or did man make us?
You’d think after man vanished, that’d be the end of that line of questioning. You’d be wrong, I’m afraid. The old chicken-or-the-egg conversation is about the only one most of these hoary old fuckers seem to be interested in having. No matter how often I point out that it’s plainly an Ouroboros of a question, a snake endlessly eating its own tail—not to mention it’s irrelevant besides—they insist on discussing it.
Gods. You gotta love ‘em.
I snapped my fingers and made fire. “Hey,” I said to my ferret. “Remember when I gave fire to Prometheus?”
He yawned with a movement that threatened to unhinge his jaws, then smacked his lips. Ignoring my question, he said, “I’m hungry.”
I glanced around. A golem was approaching, carrying a tray piled high with organs: the livers of jaguars, the spleens of skunks, the tiny hearts of shrews. I made for it, brushing past one of the philosopher gods as I went. I touched my flaming middle finger to his linens as I passed.
“Ah,” said my ferret, as the golem stopped and bowed my way, “lovely.” He dipped his sharp snout into the carnate pyramid and came out with a veined globe clutched in his teeth, a minotaur’s testicle. It made a distressing snapping sound as he bit down.
Behind me, angry voices rose. I looked back over my shoulder. Through ferret hair I could see that the god whose robe I’d lit was now wreathed in flames, his toga nothing but blackened rags hanging on his unblemished, unimpeachable alabaster skin. He looked very angry indeed.
“Remember when I gave fire to Prometheus?” I said again, walking faster.
“As I recall,” said my ferret, chewing with his mouth open, “you stole fire from the People, because you thought it’d be funny to let ‘em freeze in the winter like the other animals. But then Mother Thunder came to you, angry, and you—”
“Yes, enough,” I said.
I risked another glance back. One of the Roman gods had made a little raincloud above his flaming peer. Somehow it had failed to improve his mood. I didn’t get it. Who didn’t like being naked and wet?
“As I recall, you pissed yourself.”
“I was a fox,” I said. “Of course I pissed myself. All the time I pissed anywhere I—”
“You know what I mean,” said my ferret.
“I think you need to shut up now,” I said.
A bolt of lightning sizzled by overhead. I wasn’t sure if that was bad aim or a mere warning, and I didn’t plan to stick around to find out.
“Besides, nobody gave fire to Prometheus. He stole—”
“Seriously, shut up.”
“Whatever,” he said, swallowing the last of the testicle. He laid his head down and began to snore.
Right in my ear. Hot meat breath snores, right in my ear. For all the gods’ sakes.
I fetched up next to a marble fountain, cherubs pissing clear water into a broad white bowl. Glancing back over my shoulder, I decided I’d run—sorry, strode—far enough. I looked around.
Marble columns vined with ivy marched away down the sides of the dusty trail. High, wispy clouds skimmed across the blue, blue sky. All of it fiction, of course, a great lie perpetuated by sheer force of will. Because who’s got more force of will than a god? No one, baby, except maybe another god. Or, you know, all of them.
The fountain burbled and gurgled. It sounded like joy. I took a golden chalice from the collection adorning the fountain’s wide rim. I held it under the running water, let it fill, then wished for wine. I took a sip and spat it out. “Fuck,” I said.
“What?” said my ferret, his voice drowsy.
“Fucking arak.” I threw the goblet away. “I hate anise.”
He yawned and stretched, his little paws kneading my shoulders. “Why’d you ask for it then?”
“I didn’t.” It’s not easy being a trickster sometimes. You can’t turn it off. You’ll even play tricks on yourself.
“Hey,” my ferret said, snapping to attention and pointing like a hunting dog with his tiny black nose, “is that Baldr?”
“No,” I said, “can’t be, that lot took the easy way out.” I squinted against the glare anyway.
“Yeah.” He lay down on my shoulders and sighed, contented beyond measure. His breath still stank of raw meat. “Sure looks like him, though.”
It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. Baldr and the rest of the noble northern pantheon had bit it a long time ago, back when there were still stars and the whorls of galaxies, back when there was still an Earth, back when there was still a reason for we gods to exist.
But that was a long time ago, a trillion years or maybe a trillion trillion years ago. Eternity is damned long and it feels even longer when you’re trapped with a bunch of crusty old sons of bitches that gnaw evermore at the puzzles of who came first and what are we and why are we here.
This party goes ever on, knots of gods drinking wine and mead, milk and blood from golden chalices, discussing all the irrelevant Ouroboros questions, and meanwhile the universe falls ever deeper into the grand pit of entropic decay. Planets, flung free of their stars, have disintegrated in the yawning interstellar, intergalactic dark. The stars, in their turn, ran down and fell apart; the stellar nurseries having flown apart in the gaping maw of the third law of thermodynamics, no new stars were born to replace them. Even atoms are no more; protons and neutrons have decayed.
Some infinite time ago, on its trillionth birthday, the human race wrote itself into the interstices between the physical constants of the universe, and disappeared. We gods don’t know why. Perhaps they did it hoping to emerge someday, in a bright and distant future; perhaps it was a sublime form of racial suicide.
Outside this unending party, all is dark, darker than the grave. The only sound is the X-ray hiss of black holes, devouring the last stray leptons and quarks, crushing them into nothingness. And even when the black holes are gone, evaporated, died of hunger after quintillions of years, this party may linger yet, because it’s made of gods’ dreams, far stronger than pathetic energy and slipshod matter.
This grand palace of the imagination floats on the cooling corpse of the universe like an algal bloom on a long-lost lake, ignoring the fact of its own impossibility, maintained by the boundless wills of the gods herein assembled. It’s a beautiful place, gorgeous beyond comprehension. Great forests of oak and spruce, redwood and aspen reach for the sky, their leaves shivering and whispering in the breezes. Ionic and Doric columns stand in soldier’s ranks, and fawns and nymphs dart back and forth among them, racing each other for the pure sweet joy of it. A great stepped pyramid, its angles softened by a two-cubit-thick carpet of green moss, waits at the heart of a jungle filled with the cries and songs of macaws, pumas, birds-of-paradise. Golden fountains everywhere dispense whatever ambrosia your heart might desire. It’s the perfect amalgam of any and all of the cultures of human faith, an ecosystem of mythemes and all their attendant imagery.
Existing here is about as dull as watching shit dry in the sun, let me tell you.
I went fishing.
There are lakes here, broad flat reaches of water, mirror-still, where you can see clear to the bottom even at the deepest point. I wished a canoe into existence on the rocky verge of one of these lakes, checked it carefully for leaks—you can’t be too careful when you’re a trickster—then dreamt a paddle into my hands and pushed off. My ferret woke briefly from his doze, looked around at all the water, muttered “Again?”, and went back to sleep. He loves fish, but he hates fishing.
I rowed till I could see the fish darting hither and thither, maybe twenty feet below me. I set the paddle down on the curved floor of the canoe and waited.
After a while, a handful of fish swam nearer the surface. I watched and waited. One of them, a big jackfish, broke the surface with his head and gills.
“Hello, Fox,” he said.
“Hullo, brother pike,” I replied.
“So what’s new?”
“Well, there’s a bunch of old fogeys goin’ on and on about the chicken and the egg on shore,” I said. “Care to see?”
“Thanks but no thanks.”
“I set one old fucker’s robe on fire.”
“I bet you did.”
“C’mon, hop up into the boat. I’ll give you a better view.”
“I’m not falling for that one, trickster,” said the fish. Fish can’t frown, but I’m pretty sure if they could, he would have frowned at me. “I’ll hop into the boat, you’ll brain me and cook me, and I’ll end up swimming out of your foul ass, in pieces. Not this fish, old son.”
“You don’t trust me?” I said, putting on a sad face.
“Not as far as I can—” Those were very nearly his last words, because while he was speaking I lunged into the water and grabbed him by his gills, hooking my fingers deep inside. His eyes got big, and he croaked “Fuck you, Fox,” and those truly were his last words.
My ferret woke up when I dropped the fish into the bottom of the canoe. He sniffed the air, then took a deep breath, savouring the odour. “Got one, did you?”
“Yes,” I said, picking up the paddle. “Don’t eat any till we get back to shore.”
She came walking barefoot down the beach as I cooked my share of the fish over a fire I’d built from the chopped-up wreckage of the canoe. She wore a plain dress of pale silk that brushed her ankles. Her toenails, fingernails, and lips were painted the colour of blood.
My ferret chewed his fish head in my ear, wet smacking noises and the crunching of bones. I’ve learned to ignore it over the past few eternities. He looked up at her, and said, “Who’s she?”
“I’m not sure.” There are an awful lot of gods and goddesses around here, and for whatever reason most of them don’t like me and my kind. Tricksters get on a lot of nerves. It’s a gift.
This goddess arrived at fireside and, saying nothing, sat next to me. I gave the spit that impaled the pickerel a quarter-turn. My ferret finished chewing, swallowed, and said, “You got a name?”
I said, “Ignore him. He’s got about the worst manners in this place.”
She said, “Do you have a name, little fur?”
I said, before the ferret could speak, “He’s Weasel, and I’m Fox.”
“Ferret,” muttered the ferret, “it’s Ferret, not Weasel…”
She laughed. “Some called me Moon, in my day,” she said. Her eyes were bright green, like jade in the sun. “I’ve met your like before, Fox. I don’t believe I should quite trust you, should I?”
I gave her my broadest, most charming smile. “Care for some fish?”
After we ate, we went for a walk. She led, I followed, and my ferret dozed. He sleeps a lot, these days. I can understand.
We came to a fountain, and each of us took a chalice. I could hear a faint sound, like distant thunder, but more regular. We dipped our goblets into the running water, made our wishes, and drank. Mine tasted like mints and chocolate, which was unfortunate, since I’d wished for beer. Hers left red stains on her teeth. I couldn’t tell if it was wine or blood.
We kept walking, toward the thunder-sound. After a while I realized it wasn’t thunder; it was a drumbeat.
The ground under our feet grew spongy, and great shaggy trees arched over us, shading us from the sun. The drumming was hypnotic, a thudding sound that called my body to dance. Moon felt it too, I think; her steps became more rhythmic, more dance-like. Together we danced into the heart of the forest.
We came to a graveyard, a decoration surely, with canted headstones and tilted marble crosses furred with moss, their epitaphs weathered into illegibility. Kudzu climbed the trees, strangling them, and vines hung everywhere. In the shadows and the shades, loa danced their crazy dances, their creole chants shivering on top of the drumbeat.
We found a bench at the edge of the empty boneyard and watched them for a while. Someone had set a bouquet of fresh flowers on one of the nearby graves: stargazer lilies, frail orchids, baby’s breath, a spray of roses in a shade of red so dark they looked almost black. We sat, saying nothing, letting the rhythms of the dance and the spicy honey smell of the stargazers envelop us. Her bare shoulder was cold against my skin.
One song ended, and another began, a paean on sex and rapture.
Moon said, “Why are we here?”
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said, standing. “Not you too.” My ferret woke up, but kept his peace. I think I startled him with my vehemence.
“Hear me out, Fox,” she said. Her eyes implored me.
“No, seriously,” I said. “I am sick and fucking tired of hearing everyone here noodle around that fucking question like it’s the only thing of any importance in all the god damned universe. If I have to—”
She shut me up by standing next to me, laying her fingertip on my lips, and whispering, “Fox, shut up.” She sat back down and patted the bench next to her. I stood my ground, glaring at her. The tips of my ears burned.
In the shadows, the drumming and the songs went on, the loa ignoring us. Perhaps they hadn’t even noticed my outburst. They’ve always been a little different.
Moon said, “It’s the only question that bears asking, Fox. It’s a question that no one out there”—she waved an arm to indicate our backtrail, the elder gods with their togas and their Doric columns and olive boughs—“seems willing to seek a true answer for.”
One of the dancers darted toward us, hissed “Damballah Wedo vous regarde!” and retreated again to the shade of one of the great trees.
“But I have an answer,” she said, ignoring the interruption like it hadn’t even happened. “One that’s so simple and so obvious, it seems, that no other has come upon it in all the millennia that we’ve been here at the party.”
I looked at her, glared at her, really, and waited.
“We’re gods, aren’t we?” she said. “We’re meant to create.” She smiled at me, and stood up again. “So let’s create.”
She shrugged her shoulders, and her dress slipped off them, slithered down her pale body, and pooled at her feet. She stepped one foot out of it, and with the other kicked it away in among the headstones. Like all proper goddesses she wore nothing underneath.
Taking his cue to leave, my ferret bounded away, deeper into the graveyard, pursuing some small animal.
“Are you coming?” she said.
Nobody had to tell me twice.
She smelled like earth and rain. Her lips tasted like blood, her tongue fought like a snake. When I slid inside her she clenched me with muscles I didn’t know existed.
She fucked like a thunderstorm. She bit and scratched and howled like an animal. I did too. I roared like a bear, and she roared like a lioness, almost at the same time.
And then she pushed me off of her and sat up and said, “Like that. Just like that.”
I couldn’t smell the grave flowers anymore. All there was to smell was the musk of raw god sex.
In a lull in the drumbeat, I heard my ferret say, “So I take it you two are done, then?”
Moon’s belly swelled as we walked back. Even over the span of a couple of hours, the change was noticeable. By the time we returned to the stony beach where we’d met, it was time: her water broke, staining the smooth pebbles underfoot.
She gave birth to a brand-new universe, a fledgling bubble of light and heat and spacetime. We named it, blessed it, and sent it on its way, out past the event-horizon curve of the endless party, into the heat-death nothingness beyond.
And later, when one of the elder gods asked me which came first, I grinned and said, “I did, but not by much.”