The Fall From Grace

by

Thomas Rindt

MOUNT Wilhelmina, at nineteen thousand feet the highest peak in the Clara Lux mountain range, has risen, with all her sister peaks, almost a hundred feet in the last one hundred years: some say a foot each year, others say all at once, at the start of the century.  Whichever the case, everyone agrees that it was God who lifted these mountain peaks to their present height; they are His women: they are the brides of God.  High on Mount Wilhelmina, as if reluctant to emerge from their womb, creatures are said to inhabit an enormous cave tucked into the western wall, a cave which, overlooking the desert valley, affords these creatures a vantage point from which to watch the people of the valley.  These beings, the progeny of God and His queen Wilhelmina, are called Icemen; they venture no lower than where the snows and ice give way to the warmth.  Huge, fearsome creatures equipped to tear men apart, they are believed to be exactly one hundred years of age, having been given birth in the same year the Clara Lux mountains began their ascent.  On the first of every May, the rising sun, upon striking the tip of Wilhelmina exactly three hours after its first beams encounter the horizon, casts the peak's shadow into a seemingly bottomless hole in the earth, an abyss so deep that even at midday the sun's light cannot fathom its depth.  This hole is known as Satan's Whore, so named for the woman buried there.  It is a place considered cursed; no one has ever explored it.  No one would willingly go near it: not willingly.  It is a place of execution, one among a host of such places, where the people of the rich coastal lands carry out the sentences of death pronounced upon convicted felons, but it is the most terrible of all places of execution: it is where blasphemers are executed.  Being the resting place of blasphemy, anyone convicted of that the most heinous of all crimes among the coastal dwellers is brought to the northern face of Mount Wilhelmina - but only in the summer, for at any other time the snows and ice make the trails leading upward impassable; anyone convicted during any other season is incarcerated until the summer.  The traitor is stripped naked; the left foot is dipped into a bath of acid, the right foot into a bath of lye; a flammable ointment is forced through the anus into the bowels and spread along the anal opening; this same ointment is smeared onto the genitals and made to saturate the pubes; the hands are tied behind the neck; tiny buzzing insects are made to fill the ear canals, the nasal passages and the mouth; into the mouth is also placed a living centipede.  Finally, the prayers of damnation completed, the traitor is taken up by the two executioners, the genitals and the anus are ignited, and the body is hurled off Mount Wilhelmina into the pit of Satan's Whore.  When its howls can no longer be heard, the execution ceremony is at an end, the prayers thanking God for His goodness are said, and the procession works its way back down the mountain again.  For almost a hundred years this ritual of execution has been carried out, without change; it was said to have been established by the coastal dwellers in testament of their devotion to God, but particularly in gratitude for the kindness He showed them in shifting the balance of power from the valley to the coast.  Especially were His women, the peaks of the Clara Lux, revered by the coastal dwellers, for it was through their agency that God had effected this shift of power: by rising, they turned the rich fertile valley into a parched desert which no longer supported the energies of its people.  In time, the valley dwellers became enervated, easy prey to the now better equipped vitality of the coastal people.  God had been mortally offended by the people of the valley; He used His women to block the rain clouds formed out in the ocean from reaching the valley, which in turn caused the coastal land to grow more fertile, therefore richer, the people stronger, for which they were grateful and gave thanks to God in the ways He prescribed.

Since time immemorial, the people of the valley had considered themselves the elect of God, their soft blue and their gray eyes and their straight blonde hair and their fair skin proof in their minds of God's preference for them over the dwellers of the coastal regions east of the great mountains, who had brown cow eyes and curly hair and who tanned so much darker in the summer sun.  God had once spoken to a very ancient prophet named Wheat - named for the abundant crop of the valley; God had told this prophet of His great plans for the valley; had set down before her the rules and the ways her people were to follow; had pointed out as well the restrictions, the prohibitions, the taboos: the things her people were never to do lest it give offense to Him.  God promised to make the line of Wheat illustrious among all her people - not as rulers, but as His high priestesses, in charge of the very most sacred duty of their society: the giving of sacrifice.  It was to be Wheat's task, and the task handed down to her every generation, to select from among all the captives taken from the coast each year the ones to be sacrificed upon God's altar in the holy place at the base of Mount Wilhelmina.  The generals of course had the task of securing the captives during the annual raids on the coastlands, some hundred or so captives of all ages, both male and female, taken every year.  From among these would the high priestess select the twenty least offensive to God to be sacrificed according to the ritual He had set forth.  They would be cleaned and anointed, these twenty, then dressed in white linen; with their hands tied behind them they would be taken among the surgeons to have their limbs skillfully hacked off.  Then, before they could bleed to death, the wounds were cauterized and their trunks delivered to the holy place where, one by one, they would be set upon the altar, the high priestess taking the life of each by plunging her knife into each of the four spots most pleasing to the deity: the two eyes, the throat, and the heart.  The eyes were then cut away and put into vials to be buried in the soil that its continued fertility might be assured; the voice box was ripped open and the vocal chords removed so that exquisite jeweled lyres could be made, the music of which was most pleasing to God; the heart itself was taken, still warm, to a sacred niche at the foot of Mount Wilhelmina, where it would serve as an aphrodisiac for the deity.  To the letter were these the instructions of God carried out under the guidance of Wheat and her descendants, the high priestesses: a sacred trust to insure the fulfillment of their sacred pact with God; for, so long as it was done, and all done according to prescription, God had promised to the people of the valley His continued blessings.  Any deviation, however, would be met with the gravest and direst consequences, for although God had time and again expressed His preference for these fair haired people of the valley, His first and solemnest responsibility was to Himself.  So long as the people respected His wishes and obeyed His dictates, they would retain His preference; but let them grow wanton or neglect their solemn duty to Him or in any way disobey Him and they would soon suffer the loss of His protection: His blessings would fall elsewhere - and where else was elsewhere but beyond the mountains, to the east, on the coast?

"I can grow to love dark haired and dark eyed people, if they serve me well," God had told His first high priestess, Wheat, "better than fair haired and blue eyed people who no longer serve me."  With these words, God made His way to Mount Wilhelmina, to carve the niche where the victims' hearts would be placed each year; then He ascended to be with His wives as their husband for a season.

The skills taught Wheat by the deity were developed and refined by her descendants, brought to a state of near perfection, so much so that the eyes of the sacrificial victims could be pierced without causing blindness: and a sighted eye torn from its socket was believed to bestow greater benefit upon the soil than a sightless eye.  The more perfect the organ, the greater its power for good.  In time, the one crude knife used by Wheat to offer sacrifice came to be replaced by four separate knives: two razor sharp, slender knives, almost like hairpins, one expressly designed for the right eye, one for the left; one middle sized knife, blunt in comparison to the others, for opening the throat; and the large knife of medium sharpness made for the chest cavity.  In time also, the surgeons correspondingly improved upon their own skills almost to the point of perfection.  They no longer hacked the limbs from the trunk or sawed them; they developed fine surgical instruments for preparing the victims' bodies for the sacrificial rites.  Indeed, all facets of civilization within the valley were developed similarly: military strategy, agriculture, the judicial, the process of education and the rites of courtship, none however attaining greater refinement than the art of the high priestesses.  There was peace and there was contentment everywhere within the valley, as well as great prosperity.  From no corner was their security threatened: not from the coast, where the people were kept weak by scant rainfall and the mountains provided shelter from attack; and not from the great desert beyond their valley to the west, where no one but scattered nomads lived; and not even from the great islands far out in the ocean, whose people were said to possess great powers of magic.  They were a happy and a loving people, these the chosen people of God, given over to great shows of devotion to the deity who had granted them and their valley so much.  They loved God, and so they were beloved by Him; but as all people, being His, were beloved of Him, theirs alone was a special relationship with Him: unlike the others, they were in a position to demonstrate their love.  Being strong, they had access to sacrificial victims.  They were especially beloved.

A little girl of the final generation watched her mother sharpen the sacrificial knives.  Four knives - four sharpeners: there was a separate hone, complete with a separate set of instructions, for each knife.  One very large knife, one smaller knife, two slender spikes, one with a delicate slant to the left, the other slanted to the right: these the little girl observed being carefully maneuvered by her mother, the high priestess.  The girl would one day succeed her mother as high priestess.  For the present, she was nameless; but upon her succession the name of her great ancestor would be bestowed upon her: Wheat, which every generation bestowed upon its high priestess, would become one day her name also.  It was a holy name, third in the great hierarchy of names within the universe.  First was the ancient name of God: William, a name so revered that it overshadowed all other names, in consequence of which every male child born within the valley and even on the coast had to bear that sacred name, so that no other human name could ever chance to rival the name of God.  No living being here could call or think of or express love for a male of their species without implying a corresponding attitude toward God; in this way the supreme importance of the deity was daily impressed upon humanity.  Second in the hierarchy of names was Wilhelmina, the bride of God, a name bestowed upon no other entity in existence save the highest peak of the Clara Lux mountains.  Third was the sacred name of the high priestesses of the valley: Wheat.  Females were not named, neither those born in the valley nor those given birth on the coast, the only exception being the line of high priestesses, each of whom could receive her name only upon succeeding to her mother's position, which could occur only upon her mother's death.  The people of the valley being as a rule long lived, unlike the coastal people, whose meager sustenance made life extremely untenable, each successive generation's high priestess normally attained the age of fifty before acceding to her position or receiving her name, having already mated and sometimes having become a grandmother before her accession.  One high priestess, many generations ago, was said to have been a great-great-grandmother of eighty before succeeding her mother; another was said to have become high priestess at less than a year of age and had to wear special braces to enable her to carry out the sacrifices.  The lowest of all names, so low that it did not even have a place in the great hierarchy of names, was that of Satan: Jessamyn, a name as ancient as William, with origins as mysterious; it was said to have arisen in the pit of a volcano far out at sea.

"Mother Wheat?" the little girl asked as her mother was putting the sharpening stones away.

"Yes, what is it?" the high priestess asked her daughter.

"When will I be named?"  At first there was no response, only a very pained look on her mother's face as the words sunk in far enough to grate against her own similar questions.

"Soon," the high priestess replied sadly.  She was dying and she knew she was, the surgeons diagnosed her discomforts as an incurable illness.  It was not her death, however, but the nature of her illness which filled her with despair, for it was diagnosed as a rare crippling disease which, before it claimed her life, would leave her absolutely paralyzed, perhaps for years before she would finally die.  Very soon, perhaps within a few months, she would no longer be able to fulfill her duties as high priestess.  Already she had great difficulty sacrificing her people's offerings to God.  She would tense every muscle and strain as though giving birth, concentrating all her strength into her right arm and hand in order to bring them down at the correct spot with sufficient force to penetrate the flesh and, especially, the bone and cartilage of the chest cavity.  Many times in the last year or two she had all but failed to pierce the victim's heart; she had not effected a clean, pure wound in almost five years: the organs were damaged by the time she managed to rend them from their hold within the victim's bodies.  The eyes particularly were mutilated sometimes almost beyond recognition: the soil would suffer most certainly.  A sighted eye had not been planted in many years.  The rulers of the valley were extremely concerned for their food supply.  Wheat knew that she could not continue in her capacity as high priestess very much longer; this was why she was little by little preparing her daughter to assume her duties, letting her watch while she sharpened the knives and performed other small details necessary to the proper conduct of her duties.  The problem was what to do once it become impossible for her to sacrifice at the foot of Wilhelmina.  She could not simply leave her duties or abdicate her position: she was high priestess for life.  Nor could she take her own life, as God had expressly forbidden human beings to assume any of His prerogatives.  Neither could she be killed outright, either by the soldiers or through the agency of the surgeons.  In truth, God had made no provisions for any such eventuality.  In all the generations of high priestesses, God's blessings upon them and their people had been sufficient to preclude the kind of dilemma now faced by Wheat; no one had ever been so afflicted before: when they died, whatever their age, they did so after no more than a short illness, usually in their sleep, their deaths never affecting their duties.  There had never needed to be special provisions, for there had never before occurred such a situation: God, in fact, had never so much as considered the possibility of one of His high priestesses become disabled, for in all the universe there was nothing so important to Him as these tokens of His beloved people's devotion.  He endeavored to protect His high priestesses from disabling diseases.  It was not known to Him at the time that the sort of inbreeding He prescribed so that the line of Wheat would remain pure could result in defects to the line; but it did, and this - this inbred curse of racial purity - was the source of the high priestess's affliction.  God, who had been thinking solely in terms of His subjects' devotion to Him, could not have possibly foreseen the dire consequences His imperatives held for humanity.

So often during the day the little girl would catch her mother distracted from her normal routine, sometimes unable to complete even the simplest task.  She would ask, at such times, if she could help, but her mother would always say no, her time would come soon enough, she should go out and play which she still could.  In one sense it annoyed the high priestess that her daughter watched her and questioned her so much, for she could not help thinking herself the object of too critical an attitude, and she found herself sometimes wondering if the girl were not perhaps conspiring against her.  Yet in another sense she was pleased with the attention, for she and her daughter had been very close and she knew how much it pained the child to see her mother coming apart like this.

The child, once outdoors, played just as if nothing troubled her, but it was only appearance; in truth, she was very concerned.  She would wander perhaps among the huge beech trees in her mother's grove, going in and out among them, testing their circumference with her arms, or climbing in them, investigating their leaf structure or looking for birds' nests; or perhaps she would go out into the fields to watch the crops wave about in the breeze; or stand and watch as the captives from the coast were brought along the street.  Sometimes she would forget and start to wave at these dark haired, dark eyed people; then she would remember and withdraw the gesture, but always with a touch of regret.  She wanted very much to be able to speak with these people, to ask them how they liked the long journey, was it treacherous, were there really Icemen on Mount Wilhelmina with great teeth and claws, did it rain much on the coast, did they like it alright where they lived, was there really a huge river called the Luxor which came down from the mountains to go into the ocean and, if so, then what kinds of creatures lived in it and were any of them anything like monsters; and a host of other questions which she dearly wished to have answered.  Not that there was no one among her own people to whom she could address her questions; but that was different: they only went there, they did not actually live there.  It was not the same thing.  But no matter what she was engaged in doing, be it watching the captives or climbing trees or just wandering the fields, her thoughts were at all times very near her mother and the terrible thing, whatever it was, that seemed to be happening to her.  She wished she could ask someone about it; in fact, this was one additional reason why she longed so much to speak to the captives: well aware of her mother's unique position within the valley, she knew it was improper to speak to any of her own people about her mother, so she thought of these others, these captives from the coast, as people in whom she could perhaps confide.

Once it so happened that some captives were being brought along the road very late in the day, almost twilight.  They were all tied together, each one like a knot along a rope stretched its full length.  Suddenly, barely fifty yards from where the little girl stood, a woman fainted, apparently from the long journey, and fell to the ground.  This caused the entire procession to be halted until the woman could be gotten up again.  Two of the guards, handsome young men with clear blue eyes and soft blonde hair, came over and called to the woman to get up, but she seemed not to hear them, so they began kicking her, but this seemed if anything only to make matters worse.  The woman began groaning and vomiting blood; the guards began kicking her all the harder: perhaps they did not understand the relationship between consciousness and physical well being;  While this was going on, the little girl took the opportunity of sneaking alongside the road to within a few feet of one of the captives, a young boy about her age who had caught her eye.  She whispered to him to get his attention.  "Who are you?" she asked.  He looked around, startled, unable at first to determine where the voice was coming from.  She called again, still in a whisper but a louder whisper.  This time he found her, but he was still startled; he just stared at her, his eyes big and dark like two onyx spheres set into alabaster, the evening light a glitter reflected outward.  He knew he was not permitted to speak to any of these valley people, and he knew by her gray eyes and long blonde hair that this girl was one of them, not one of his people: so why was she encouraging him to speak?  Did she not know it was forbidden?  Was his lot not already bad enough without her making it yet worse?  Why was she doing this to him?  He almost began to cry.

"Don't be afraid," she whispered.  "I know you can't speak to us, it is forbidden, but I wish to tell you something.  My mother is sick, I am worried for her.  She's the high priestess, Wheat."  At the mention of this dreaded name, the boy turned away; he was trembling, and he refused to look back at the girl no matter how much she coaxed or pleaded with him.  "Please," she said, "don't turn away.  I won't hurt you.  And my mother is so sick, I don't think she will be able to sacrifice you, even if you're chosen.  So please, don't turn away from me."  But the boy would not be convinced.  He was so frightened, in fact, that he had wet himself, and now he was too ashamed to face anyone.  Very soon, however, the guards had managed to get the fallen woman back on her feet, one of her fellow captives forced to help her along.  The procession started off again; in no time at all they had gotten almost beyond the girl's view; only their outline against the setting sun was visible as they were led to prison.  The little girl finally turned back and went inside her mother's house.  She told her mother what had happened, except for what she had spoken to the boy; she looked at her mother as if expecting some manner of explanation.

"Will they be sacrificed?" she asked and was told that if any of them were worthy of it then, yes, they would be.  She looked at her mother and asked "Will you be able to do it, by yourself?"

"I must do it by myself," her mother answered in a voice which sounded very distant.  What shall I do? the high priestess thought in anguish.  Whatever shall I do?  Of course I am unable to fulfill my duty, but I must.  I must.  Whatever am I to do?  I am trapped.  God has given us no instruction should such a thing happen: what are we to do?  He has laid down no rules.  Oh God, why? why have you not foreseen this? why?  How can I do what my body refuses me the strength to do?  Why will you not let us choose to end our own misery?  If I could but die my daughter could then assume my duties.  She is strong, she could serve you well.  But I...oh God...I can do nothing.  Oh God help me, please, help me!

The eyes of Wheat became great with tears, which in her daughter's presence she would not release.  They backed up in her sockets, for a moment blinding her; and without her sight to help steady her balance, she became dizzy and fell, her muscles too weak to hold her upright on their own without the aid of her consciousness.  Her body very quickly grew stiff.  It would not move, and could not be moved: her daughter, upon perceiving her predicament, rushed to assist her, but was unable to help her get up again or to even move her tense limbs.  The full force of her disease had hit the high priestess.  It was out of her hands now to do anything.  She could not even speak to advise her daughter how best to handle the situation: her tongue had grown as stiff as her limbs.  She could still hear, and she could still see now that her tears had ceased, but she could not move her eyes: they were held rigid to simply stare at whatever was immediately before her.  And her whole face became like stone, her skin like wax - pliable to look at but rigid and immovable.  It had fallen to her daughter to do something.

The little girl, whose thoughts were circumscribed by the narrow compass of her immediate world, decided upon the only course of action she knew to be open.  She covered her mother, thinking there to be a need for warmth, and left the house.  Quickly, she hurried down the street, through the darkness, knowing the way almost by heart, for this was the only place she was ever allowed to visit; being the daughter of the high priestess, she could not associate with the ordinary people of the valley, only with the privileged ones.  She ran among the surgeons, her mother's associates, the ones who prepared the sacrificial victims once they were chosen.  They dwelt in a large stone house with many chambers; but there were no steps leading up to it, as there were leading to the temple at the foot of Mount Wilhelmina where her mother performed the sacrificial rites.  She explained what had happened to her mother.  The head surgeon nodded in a knowing fashion as she spoke: he knew this day was inevitable.  His only hope had been that it would not come until after the yearly sacrifice - but here it was, it had come the very day before.  He sat the little girl down while he went among his colleagues to discuss what they might do to deal with this crisis.

"Please don't be long," the little girl begged, "mother's very sick!"  The surgeon promised her it would be but a few minutes.  All the surgeons gathered about a smooth oaken table and began their discussion.  The head surgeon laid the facts before them, making it quite explicit just what their dilemma was and how serious it was.

"There is no provision," he declared solemnly.

"We are without divine guidance?" they asked him, barely able to conceive of such a thing.  It felt to them as if they had been driven temporarily mad that they should find themselves speaking such words.  The head surgeon merely nodded in response to their inquiry: he too sensed the madness of the situation.  Words had become unreal when these were the only ideas they transmitted - so of what use were they?  Gestures were as meaningful, or grunts, or snorts, or the passage of gas, or obscene motions: when nothing sounded the conditions of existence but only their negation, words might as well be dispensed with altogether.

"In God's name what then?" someone asked in utter desperation.  Various plans were half-heartedly, tentatively, almost shamefully put forward, though no one offering these plans held any prospect of their being taken seriously, since nothing deriving from the mind of man truly addressed itself to the matter.  The problem was metaphysical; only God could solve it.

"Then why not ask Him?" someone asked.  It was a black moment when those words were strung together to form an interrogative.  The head surgeon, after a silence, spoke up.

"Do you recall the legends?" he asked.  "Those of the hill people?  The tribe of dark skinned people who once dwelt on Wilhelmina and her sister mountains and once ruled this entire continent - the valley, the desert, the coast, and all but the most distant and greatest of the mysterious islands which the offshore fog bathes in its perpetual mist?  How they one day reached a crisis which they could not resolve, one for which they too had been given no guidance?  So they met and decided to approach the deity.  They called Him down from the summit of Wilhelmina, to a conference of their rulers, where they hold Him of their dilemma.  They asked His advice.  Do you now recall the legend?  Do you not remember what then happened?  How in a rage at their implication of His imperfection, that He could have ever left them in such a dilemma, He called down a curse upon their entire tribe?  How He stormed out of their kingdom?  How He hurled from the summit of Wilhelmina rocks down upon their cities?  How their walls were crumbled?  How they were left defenseless against their enemies?  How they were then attacked and all but a handfull of their people slaughtered, the bodies left to rot?  And how the survivors were carried off as slaves?  Those legends: do you now recall those legends?  And you can ask: 'Shall we do the same?  Shall we confront the deity with His imperfection?'  You can ask such a thing?"

The poor surgeon who had raised the question now hung his head in shame.  He nodded no, he could not ask such a thing - no one should; tears poured down his face, and he kept silent from then on.

"Perhaps," another surgeon suggested, "we could deceive the deity."  He then proposed the ways in which they might attempt such a deception.  "We could murder the high priestess, but in such a way as to make it appear she died naturally.  Or we could dress another woman up to appear as Wheat, or even one of us.  Or we could simply inform Him that the sacrifice had been completed without it actually having been."  Each one of these suggestions was met with greater dismay than the previous; none was acceptable.  The head surgeon pointed to essentially the same objection for each, with appropriate variations: he reminded everyone that the deity tended toward omniscience in these - especially in these - matters, because that which was due Him was of all things in existence most important to Him.

"No," the head surgeon concluded, "there is, I'm afraid, no possibility of deceiving God in matters of sacrifice."

"Then what?" they all cried in despair.

"I don't know," the head surgeon said.

"I do," a small voice rang out.  Everyone turned.  Facing them, having just come into the room, was the little girl, Wheat's daughter, who had brought them this problem and now proposed to solve it for them.  At first, upon perceiving who it was had spoken, the surgeons were content to ignore her: to smile, to acknowledge her concern, but to then turn from her solution back to the problem.  She stood in the doorway waiting for permission to speak further, but it was not forthcoming.  Several more minutes she stood in the doorway until one of the surgeons, uneasy at ignoring the child who would one day become high priestess, made so bold as to suggest she be heard.

"What can it hurt?" he asked.  "We have no answer."  The others, reluctantly, agreed to hear the child out.

"Go on," encouraged the head surgeon, "you may speak."

"Well," she said, a bit more nervously now that she was actually asked to address the surgeons, "my mother has gone over the rules of our society and especially of her duty as high priestess - oh so many rules!  God is certainly a stickler for perfection, isn't He?"  No one answered her, though the child waited a moment in silence for an answer before proceeding, not realizing her question to be essentially rhetorical.  "Anyway," she went on, "I couldn't help noticing in all those rules - oh so many! - there was none which specifically said we had to sacrifice.  I know we're supposed to, but it doesn't really say so in any of our rules.  Mother said God expects it, it's our duty to Him, His proof of our devotion - but He never actually made it a rule that we had to.  So I thought maybe if we simply changed our minds and decided not to have sacrifice any more then it wouldn't really be like disobeying God or accusing Him of being imperfect, not really.  It would just be a choice we had made.  And we can still do all we can to prove to God that we love Him.  We can make up new rules, like saying fifty times more prayers or something.  Couldn't we?"

Everyone was amused at the little girl's charm, and they were quite impressed with her rhetorical skill: that was quite a mouthful for one so small, they felt.  But they each one had at least a thousand objections to her plan, charming though it was, none of which, however, they were able to specify when she asked them what those objections were.  All they could say when pressed was "Oh, it won't do, but it would take too long to point out why, and we must act as soon as possible."  This was all they could say, and each one longed desperately to be able to say more against the girl's plan.  In truth, each one feared the plan, dreaded it with an overpowering dread; in truth, the surgeons, to a man, found themselves reaching out to it as their only hope, their only way out of their horrible dilemma.  In truth, they knew that in their hearts they had already agreed to accept it: that they had seen it all along as their only way out and had spent all their energies skirting it, no one wanting to be the one to suggest, but had come straight upon it anyway, as much because of as despite the scattering of their energies.  Even as they were watching each other's mouths form the words which their ears received as "No, No, we can't really accept it, it won't do," they saw each other's heads nodding "Yes, yes, we have no choice but to accept it"; and, worse still, they felt their own heads nodding in suit.  They had no choice: they did not say so, but they knew it.

"You see," some tried to explain, not even half-heartedly, "even if we said there were no suitable captives, none worthy of sacrifice - which is the best and the most we could ever do - it still would not do, because soon we would have the same problem all over.  Wheat may live for years in this state.  Besides, God would prefer unworthy sacrifices to none at all.  No, it just won't do at all."

They sent the little girl along home, with one of the surgeons accompanying her to attend to her mother, promising her that they would very shortly decide what to do, and would let she and her mother know of their decision.  She thanked them.

On the way home, she talked with the surgeon, though he did very little talking, mostly an isolated "Yes" or "No" when appropriate, or an occasional "Uhm," intended to express doubt.  "I think," the girl concluded as they neared her home, "they will do as I suggested.  Didn't you get that feeling too?"  Here the surgeon answered "No."  "Well, I did," she said.  "And besides," she added, "I don't see what else they can do anyway.  And you know in a way I'm glad too, because even though God deserves His sacrifices, still I saw a little boy today, one of the newest captives, who I really would just as soon not be sacrificed."  The surgeon said "Uhm," to this; it shocked him somewhat that anybody should pay so much attention to a captive; but then, he satisfied himself, she was but a child and could not truly be expected to understand.  He smiled down at her as he opened the front door to admit them both to the high priestess's house.  She smiled back.

Wheat was lying just where her daughter had left her.  Her eyes were wide open, staring, and she was breathing; but otherwise she gave every sign of being dead.  She was wearing the golden high priestess's robe which had been handed down from mother to daughter since the time, many generations ago, of the original Wheat; but it had gotten wrinkled lying on the floor under her weight, and it was damp from the sweat her pores had managed to release, and it smelled of excrement.  Together, the surgeon and the little girl lifted Wheat and carried her into her bedroom, where they undressed her, cleaned her as one would a soiled infant, and pulled the covers up to her neck.  Next they took the soiled robe into the kitchen where they attempted to clean it, though the odor of excrement still remained.  "It will fade in time," the surgeon assured his little helper, to which she agreed.  "They won't even notice it," she said.  Then the surgeon, preparing to leave, advised the child that she should get some sleep now.  "I'll return," he said, "early tomorrow.  Perhaps the head surgeon too.  Perhaps all of us.  Perhaps the rulers.  Perhaps the whole valley.  Or perhaps the whole world.  Enough of us, anyway, to convince God of our love for Him.  Good night, little one.  And say your prayers."

"I will," the child promised.  "Good night," she whispered as she shut the door behind her visitor.  The morning came to her so quickly: she knew she had no more than gone into her room, laid down and shut her eyes - and here it was: the morning already.  "Things are like magic in God's world," she observed, as a kind of morning prayer.  She got up and got dressed, going next to her mother's room to see how her mother was.  "Maybe she's better," she mused.  "Yes, maybe she's already up and dressed."  Then she thought what that would mean; she saw in her thoughts the little captive boy being sacrificed, and although she still wished her mother to be well, she was without enthusiasm.  But of course her mother had not gotten better, so she tended to her then went about her own business.  "The day that we will end sacrifice," she thought aloud, over and over, that morning.  She was grateful that the captive boy would be spared, but then she would lose her place in the world: there was no joy in her gratitude, it was merely an abstraction.

The day was long and the day was brief: the longest and yet the briefest of any day the valley had ever witnessed, its length derived from the anticipation of what the next day would bring, its brevity from the wish never to have to see what would happen next.  No candles were lit that evening at the foot of Wilhelmina; no procession to the temple, no high priestess, no sacrifices.  When God looked down from the embrace of His bride, He saw nothing but darkness below Him.  When He listened, He heard no cries, no shrieks, no pleas for mercy.  When He sniffed the air, He smelled no blood.  Tears of anger and shame and hurt collected about the rims of His eyes.

"No sacrifice," He muttered in disbelief, saying it over and over until it emerged from His thoughts into the reality of the world, spreading around him, like a warrior in full dress.  Then in a burst of fury He screamed "They'll pay!"  The mountains - the many wives of God: they shook when their husband's voice echoed though their various caverns and bounced among their peaks and tumbled down from their crags into their deep chasms, even reaching as far as the great endless hole below Wilhelmina.  The entire Clara Lux mountain range shook and began inching its way upward deeper into the clouds.  Even the valley shook, as from an earthquake: china saucers and cups rattled in their cabinets, silverware jangled in hope chests, furniture shook, some of the lighter chairs actually moved a foot or more from where they had been before coming to rest, and candles were wrenched loose from their holders.

On the third day God descended from His home on Mount Wilhelmina.  Into the valley.  He made straightway for the home of Wheat, His high priestess.  He encountered no one along the way, though at every step He was aware of eyes peering at Him from behind every window and from the vertical slits of drawn curtains.  The earthquake had given everyone warning to stay indoors.  He arrived at Wheat's house and went in, without so much as knocking, demanding to see His high priestess.  The little girl complied with His request.

"Well?" He cried to His high priestess.  "Shall you not rise in the presence of your God?"  Still the woman did not stir, except within.  God began to sniff, offended: the high priestess's bowels had moved, in response to her horror at seeing the deity.  The little girl rushed to her mother's defense, explaining that she had been stricken and was unable to move, which God dismissed out of hand as "A likely story!"  Then the little girl was compelled to refer the deity to the surgeons, upon being asked to explain why there had been no sacrifice made to Him.  "Have your people ceased loving me?" He asked in a petulant tone of voice.

"No," the little girl replied, "we love you greatly."

"Then why was there no sacrifice?" He asked.  "I heard no shrieks, I smelled no blood, I saw no light in the temple - by what infernal twist of logic do you dare offer yourselves as my devoted servants?  Where's the proof of your love?" God demanded to know.

"It will be forthcoming in every way," the little girl assured the deity.

"There is only one way acceptable to me," God advised.  "If you cannot or will not sacrifice one another for my sake, you have nothing to substantiate your claims: they are idle chatter merely."

"You left us with no option," the girl pointed out.  "When mother became unable to sacrifice and yet remained alive, we could do nothing, as you gave us no instructions should such a thing happen -"

"It cannot happen!" God interrupted.  "Otherwise I would have instructed you!"

The girl could only look toward her mother and shake her head at God's obstinacy.  She went on with her explanation just as if He had not spoken.  "So our only choice was to put an end to sacrifice altogether.  And this is what we have done.  There is to be no more sacrifice.  The surgeons, the rulers and everyone have all agreed."

"What?" God stormed.  "No more sacrifice?  How dare you!  I am God!  You are nothing!  I am all!  Me - I am all!  Not you but me!  I have given no thing permission to care more for its own kind than for me!  I am God!  I am all!  Me: I am all!  And you shall see!  You shall pay!  All of you!  You, your mother, all your people!  All of you!  I shall destroy you all, slowly, painfully!  I shall raise my women up high enough to block off the rain clouds from entering your valley!  I shall make the people across the mountains strong that they may rise up and slaughter your people!  Not all at once though: little by little.  Your young girls and your young boys especially will I have slaughtered - all in your name, child, for you have mortally offended me as none other has ever done before, with your blasphemy!  Your young men shall be butchered - I shall instruct the people of the coast in such arts!  Your young girls shall be taken hostage and raped and the issue of their bodies butchered, if they be male, in ways I shall prescribe, or if they be female, raised to be raped likewise!  Your land shall wither, trees shall die, crops burn where they stand!  Dust and desert be upon every generation!  For I am God, all powerful and all loving, and I withdraw my power and my love from those who do not love me!  And you: come with me blasphemer!"

God grabbed up the child by her hair and dragged her out of her mother's house, into the street, where He commanded the people of the valley to assemble.  From among them he took the captives from the coast, calling them His new "Chosen Ones."  He freed them, for which kindness they went down on their knees before Him in prayer.  He provided them with knives, and, grabbing up a stray boy, demonstrated how to slaughter the wiggling, squealing creature, and in what order to hack off the limbs, remove the eyes and sever the private parts.  The people of the valley all stared in horror as God took one after another of their boys and made the captives slaughter them until they had learned the technique.  Then he took one of the captives - the little boy who the daughter of Wheat, the high priestess, had sought to comfort - and, placing a jeweled dagger in his hands, bestowed upon him His own name: William.

"Behold," said God, "I give you William, named for God Himself.  He shall become leader to his people, and every male child born henceforth shall bear the name William - my name! - in his honor.  Come William," He called to the boy to lead his fellow captives from the valley.  The deity had evidently forgotten, in His anger, that all male children were already named after Him.  "Follow me!" He commanded as He grabbed the daughter of Wheat once again by her hair and dragged her off to the peak of Mount Wilhelmina, along trails both treacherous and steep, some covered with deep snow, some hidden from view by caves which jutted out at sharp angles.  He turned northward, to stand at last upon the ledge overlooking the endless pit.  He instructed the captives to strip the girl of her clothes; to prepare two separate baths, one of acid, one of lye; to dip the girl's left foot into the acid, her right foot into the lye; to apply a special flammable ointment to her genital and anal openings and deep within her; to tie her hands behind her neck; to gather some tiny buzzing insects to be placed in her ear canals, nasal passages and mouth; to find and place on her tongue a living centipede; then, upon praying with Him for her eternal damnation, to light the ointment.  God then handed the victim over to two of the captives chosen as executioners, to be thrown from Mount Wilhelmina into the abyss, which God then named after her.

"You!" He roared, pointing as she tumbled down the deep hole, "You are Satan's Whore!  So this place shall evermore be known!"  In a few moments, all was quiet, and God took the captives to where there was a trail leading safely down to the coast.

"Go," He commanded, "and spread the word of my love."  Then He ascended once more into the awaiting arms of His bride Wilhelmina to be cradled in her love.  The sun began to retreat behind the mountains; clouds began gathering out in the ocean.  God's women arose.