Heat Death

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.”