The Man in the Crater

by

Thomas Rindt

The place God chose for his bride, Wilhelmina, whose peaks were hewn from an island halfway across the universe and carried aloft by magic spells ten thousand miles to be set amidst the Clara Lux Mountains - that place, which the divinity had waited an eternity to fill with a peak worthy of His love: that place, long before God even existed, had been a crater.  Over the ages it had filled in; time had sealed everything within it.  The pressure of a billion subtle shifts in the tone and feel of the ground had warped the essence of what was buried in the crater so that, as it slowly filtered to the surface, what finally emerged was a mere dilution of what had been; too little of the essence escaped to replicate the old forms: in shape only were they the same.  The ground, soft and mushy since closing about everything, hardened as the new forms emerged, making the ideal spot for a chain of mountains.  A hundred peaks arose, separating the coast from the interior, except for a gap directly over the crater where, out of respect for what was buried deep under ground, nothing would grow until the day God extracted His queen from the quarry He had been seeking ever since He entered the universe, and set her in place.

The crater had been brought to this planet from across the sky, before there was any living thing present, by a great force which could, at will, assume the form of a wind, a beam of light, a shower of meteors, or a voice.  It could cause a faint shadow, such as the light of the moon might develop, but could not assume a tangible form limited by dimensions.  Its every action was planned; everything that occurred, a vast outline made space for, so that its original design might become the basis for the totality of experience.  On occasion this design would itself assume a partial form, very briefly, as if attempting a self-generation: a great array of light particles would summon sheets of ice from the cold regions where, together, they would hover momentarily above the horizon before their thousand hues dissipated.

A great rock which this force was attempting to move to a new galaxy - a special arrangement of matter most pleasing to it - came hurtling to the ground: the rock had slipped from its grip.  A huge crater formed.  The rock descended to the center of this world before splitting apart.  Upon beholding the shattered rock, the force wept, and vowed to use the precious substance to nurture the most splendid place that ever existed or could ever exist.  "Here," it said, "I will build paradise.  And I will create a race of beings worthy of inhabiting such a place.  I will endow them with everything they need to attain perfect happiness."

For thousands of eons this great force pondered the best means of creating the perfect race of beings.  It went the span of the universe many times in search of clues as to how to proceed.  When it returned to the place it had deemed paradise, it discovered that place already changed.  Where the rock had torn a space in the ground, time had smoothed and hardened the soil; and a lake had formed.  Varieties of plants and trees different from those previously there had grown up around the lake; great mounds had also arisen.  Everywhere, as far as the horizon, little black forms constantly moved.  Farther off, at the edge of the ocean, a blanket of swollen white bones covered the ground.

Infinitely patient, the great force studied what it found.  It pondered the strew of bones, trying to imagine what manner of thing they resulted from; and, as it pondered, it watched the tiny forms moving about, going in and out of the huge mounds and swarming over the bones.  "Are these builders, or scavengers?" the force wondered.  "Can they serve perhaps as the prototype for my perfect race of beings?  Let me think on it."

As it thought, it went to inspect the hallowed ground where it had dropped the rock.  "I must clear away this water," it said.  "But without drowning these small, many legged creatures.  Let me evaporate it."  A warm breath came over the lake, and the water vanished, revealing a deep hole, deeper even than when the rock had first dropped; and, squirming and flapping madly at the bottom, countless slender round forms.  "What creatures are these?" it wondered.  Gradually the forms, some gray, some brilliantly hued, ceased moving.  "Ah, they have died," it mused.  "Small wonder, living at the bottom of so much water.  It's a miracle they lived at all.  And a testament to this plot of ground I so dearly love.  But clearly they were unworthy of paradise.  Let me go study those tiny black creatures again."

But when the great force returned to the vast plain stretching to the sea, it found an empty expanse, with only mounds and bones to mark where the creatures had been.  They were gone.  "Doubtless they, too, have died," it observed.  "And being so small, have been carried by the wind off this planet.  And I had hoped they might prove to be the ideal being.  Now I must design one, without reference to anything else alive.  So be it."  The force began reasoning how best to create the perfect being.  "It must have legs, otherwise it will fall into the water and drown; but not too many legs: that doesn't seem to work either.  It must of course be able to reproduce itself: I cannot keep remaking the same creature over and over again.  And it must provide for its own needs: I have more important things to do than feed lowly creatures, however perfect they may be.  Above all else, it must have imagination: what good is perfection if the creature fails to grasp my great plan?"

In time, after many trials and many errors, as one after another design proved useless and either died of its own or had to be destroyed, this great cosmic force fixed upon what proved to be the ideal formulation: a being with four separate appendages, situated in such a way that two served to steady its balance and aid ambulation while the other two permitted an extraordinary range of manipulation and control of its surroundings.  The force pronounced it good; then fair, as it looked upon its ungainly attempts at discovery; then poor, as it remembered the dozens of tiny black creatures which, almost before its very eyes, became thousands, then millions, then disappeared altogether: truly a glory to its massive plan while they lived; then pronounced it again good, this newest creation, as it recalled the foolish things which had fallen into the water and drowned: a most vainglorious heap of creatures, attempting to be what they were not.

"Perhaps I must seek a lesser order of perfection," the great force concluded.  "The kind of matter I must build with on this plane seems insufficient to my idea of perfection.  Either I must improve the material, or reformulate the mix; or else accept this sad replica.  And I wish to be in another part of the universe within the week.  Damn it all, I have no time to nurture every single idea I get - and as this is of far less import than creating a new galaxy, it must do as it is.  If it survives, I shall be rewarded for my effort; if not, then so be it.  I must go."

It had no more than left, however, till it returned again, unable to resist seeing how this new creature fared in paradise.  "What is this?" the great force murmured in disbelief at what it came upon.  There, before it, was its creation, wandering as if in a daze, oblivious to everything about it.  "Where are the others?" the cosmic voice whispered to the creature, causing it to look around dumbly.

"Others?  What is 'others'?" the thing asked in a frail voice.

"Have you not reproduced?" the voice came again from nowhere.

"Reproduced?  What is 'reproduced'?"  The creature looked everywhere for what was producing these sounds, the first sounds it had ever heard which had meaning; the first sounds which brought no fright brought instead mystery.  "Perhaps," this creature reasoned, "since I understand them, they arise somewhere within me."  It began listening closely to whatever parts of itself could be set close to its ears.

"What is this wretch doing?" the great force wondered.  "Does it imagine I am in its arms or its hands?  Or, worse still, its organ of eliminating foul fluids?  How abominable a use of the imagination I bestowed upon it!"

The organ it sought to bring to its ear would not reach, no matter how great the pull; yet still it pulled, long after any creature must surely have seen the futility of the project.  It seemed almost to have forgotten the voice which inspired its initial attempts.

"What are you doing?" the force asked.  But the creature paid no attention; nor would it leave off pulling at the organ it had sought to bring to its ears, an organ which had become swollen and rose ever more stiffly upon its groin.  It pulled, and pulled, and pulled, until at last a milky stream was cast from it, after which this poor bewildered creature lay down upon the ground and shut its eyes and was very still.

"Well, has the fool killed itself attempting to better hear me?" the great voice now asked.  It pondered this unexpected occurrence, wondering whether to bury the corpse or simply leave it to become an empty carcass.  Glancing away, it beheld in the distance the remnant of old bones along the shoreline.  They displeased it.  "I have had enough of bones," it said.  "There will be none here, of all places.  Paradise must be litter-free.   Therefore let me move this thing.  I shall put it in the sea, to be swept out to the great island at the other end of the world.  Come, beast, let us to your fate!"

The creature did not stir as a great wind lifted it fifty feet above the hallowed ground where it had fallen.  The milky stream it had expelled had already sunk into the moist earth; and the organ which its frenzy had caused to swell and nearly burst open had returned to its previous form and dangled softly as it was levitated through the air.  Presently, it was hovering over the surf which beat an endless rhythm against the vast stretches of sand circumscribing this easternmost reach of the earth.  Nearly five miles beyond paradise had the wind borne this creature when suddenly it died down and the frail silent body tumbled into the water.  The great force, this creature's creator, not wishing to remain a moment more in the presence of so pitiful a failure, set at once to depart when a cry arising from those very waves which were to carry the creature away caught its attention.

"The waters cry out?" the force inquired.  It spoke rhetorically, for who was there to answer?  "Even they do not wish such ignoble ingratitude to pollute them!  Let me therefore take the corpse myself to the great island."  Once again, it became a powerful wind; once again, it swept down and gathered the creature's remains; once again, it bore them aloft.  This time, however, a most remarkable and wondrous thing happened.  This time the creature stirred.  Faintly at first, then with greater animation, till finally it was seized with a great choking spasm which ended in a stream of water spurting from its mouth.  Then it grew calm.

"Will you now die again," the force wondered, "and undo this great thing that has happened?"  But no, the creature clearly lived; it breathed; its chest heaved up and down; its eyes opened; it beheld its own flight; it considered its condition; it wondered what had happened to it.

"You died, and through the wondrous agency of the sea I created, you were reborn.  Reborn!  Raised from your own grave!  Reborn!  To live again. To do unto your creator the greatest glory any creature has ever done.  Just imagine!"

"I died?" the still dazed created muttered.

"As I live and breathe, you did," the wind bearing the creature aloft spoke back.

For several moments the creature pondered this thing that had happened to it.  "To sleep is to die," it finally concluded.

"What a charming thought," the great wind mused.

Nothing further was exchanged.  The rescued creature lapsed once more into the stupor the great force had found it in; the force itself fell to musing: it recalled the wondrous rock which so many ages ago had first brought this tiny planet to its attention.  The arrangement of matter within that rock was a thing so glorious that the force had wrest it from a great plateau in a distant galaxy and set to move it to a site more to its liking.  But a distraction, or something, had loosened its grasp; and the rock had fallen.  And now, as a wind, it sat this insignificant creature beside the beautiful lake which had again formed and continuously washed the crater the rock had formed.  The sharp contrast between the two - this creature, the rock - displeased the great force.  "For all the glory in resurrecting this creature," the force thought to itself, "there is still no comparison.  Ah! how that rock would have looked framed by that pulsing black tunnel in the center of that galaxy.  Surely there must be another such.  I must go and find it.  Surely it exists somewhere.  Surely it must!"

"I must depart this place," the wind spoke to the creature.  "I will be away from here a million years before I return again."

"What is a million years?" the creature asked.

"It is longer than anything you can imagine."

"Longer than the distance to the sea?"

"Infinitely so!" replied the great force.  "It is longer than any amount of space, because it is time."

"Time?  Greater than any distance?  Are both of the same substance, that their relative qualities may be assessed?"

This question annoyed the force.  "Of all the glorious things you might seek to understand - such as my name, or how many forms I can assume, or where I am going next - you choose to ask something as senseless as the relationship of time to space.  You must learn to weigh the import of your questions.  But never mind that for now: I must be going.  First, since you are unable to reproduce without assistance, I shall take one of your ribs and make you a mate."  The force began tugging at the creature's chest.

"Are you crazy?" the creature demanded to know.

The force was offended.  "Your creator can hardly be crazy," it responded.

"To pull my bones out?  Not crazy?"

"You pulled yourself to death yourself straining at the sound of my voice, don't forget!" the force reminded the creature.

"Then you should know better than to try the same thing," the creature completed its first raw syllogism.

"Then I shall have to make you a mate out of nothing.  She will not be a part of you; she may not even mate with you.  In which case I wash my hands of this whole experiment."

With this enjoinder, the force set to making a mate for the creature.  When it was done, the force looked it over and pronounced it good; then fair; then poor; then finally again good.  Then the force set to depart, leaving its two creatures to their own devices.

"Suppose we have great need of you before the time you return?" the creature asked.

"Perhaps if you call me, I'll hear," the force tentatively replied.

"By what name shall we call you?" the creature's mate asked.

"Name?  I have no name - what need have I of a name when there has been nothing to speak it?"

"Now there is," the mate replied.

"In that case," the force spoke with some annoyance, "call me whatever you wish.  I defer to you the right to name your own creator.  Of course, if I do not like the name you choose, I may not answer to it," the force cautioned.

For a long while both the creature and its mate thought a long stream of sounds when finally the mate pulled something, some combination of syllables, from that stream.  "William," she said.  "I name thee William."

The force considered this name, finally pronouncing it acceptable, given certain unavoidable reservations.  "Not the very best name for a supreme being, to be sure; but it will do.  In fact, it will do quite well.  The base of it does agreeably express my essence, which is pure will.  The other part seems trivial, but so be it: next to my will all else is trivial.  At least when you speak the name, I shall know at once who it is speaking.  Yes, thou shalt call me William.  And now I go, not to return for a million years.  Farewell - and do me great glory.  If you can."

"Farewell," the creature and its mate called out to the great swirl of wind rapidly advancing to the endless reaches of sky above.

When it had disappeared, the two it left behind turned to each other.  "William did not give us names," the mate said.

The creature thought a moment.  "We named our creator.  Therefore, let us name ourselves as well.  You choose a name that pleases you; I shall choose one that pleases me."

"Why do we have parts that differ from one another?" the mate asked one day.  "Did we not both proceed from the same creator?"

The creature considered this question.  "We did," it replied.  "But I fear William was not as attentive to detail as it might have been."

"Would we not be more compatible if we were more alike?" the mate asked.  "Why am I so much bigger than you here, where my flesh pounds when I move quickly, and so much smaller here, where I expel water?"

"I know not where this part that grows big when I rub against it came from.  Perhaps you have one hiding inside there.  Let us look for it."

They looked, but did not find what they sought.  Yet they would not abandon their search, they kept looking, long after it became clear no such part would be found inside the mate.

"I will give you mine," the creature at last resolved.

"You are very kind," the mate replied.

But there was no way to remove the creature's part, try as they both may.  "We will share it," the creature said in some desperation.  "I will put it inside you that you may know how it feels."

After many tries the part finally disappeared inside the creature's mate, and both were greatly pleased.  Shortly, however, they forgot their efforts and drifted, each one, into a deep sleep.

*                            *                            *                            *                    *

In time, there came to be a multitude in paradise.  Many generations passed; the descendants of the creature and his mate grew up, grew old, died, leaving yet more in their place.  At no time did the populace decline, but rather it steadily grew, until paradise, which had grown over the great crater left in the path of a carelessly dropped boulder, no longer could hold them all.  So they began little by little to venture beyond its boundaries, apprehensive at first, then bolder as they discovered no danger lurking abroad, nor any harm to themselves by the great mysterious changings in their environment.  Where before they feared that the lightenings, the drenching rains, the searing beams of heat in the summertime would destroy them should they depart the safety of paradise, they came in time to regard those great mysteries as merely the random occurrences of their world, neither more nor less dangerous outside paradise then inside.

Though many people were born, many grew old and many died, the creature himself and his mate, the progenitors of this race of beings, remained as they were when they were first created.  They neither aged nor grew sickly, nor did they die.  Compared to all the rest they were immortal; they were as gods.  And among their progeny were those who wished to revere them as gods.

"Surely the fountainhead of our race is worthy of our worship," many would say.

"Perhaps," the more skeptical would retort; "but would they not tell us if it were proper?"

"Perhaps so - or perhaps not," the studied reply would come.  "Perhaps they are waiting for us to recognize both themselves and our duty to them.  Perhaps we hesitate at our peril."

"How so?"

"Perhaps they will choose to depart; to create a new race, in a new land, which will honor them as they deserve.  Perhaps they will cease their protection of us and we shall all perish."

This thought brought a cold spine of fear to even the skeptics among them, for everyone believed in his heart that only through the intervention of some supernatural force did they continue to exist in this place filled with so many perils and mysterious happenings.  They knew not what manner of intervention it was that protected them, nor had they considered, most of them, the presence somewhere of a being capable of manipulating the terrible lightening, or the drenching rain, or the searing heat, until now, when their brothers presented it to them.  It never occurred to them to wonder how their brothers could know of such beings or when they might have seen these beings in the exercise of these strange powers; they simply took them at their word - and why not? no one could make up such things, or imagine them if they had not actually witnessed them, surely.  And, besides, it was not something alien and invisible their brothers attributed these wondrous powers to, but the very ones from whom the entire race had sprung - and were not these progenitors clearly possessed of qualities far superior to everyone else's, that they continued to live while their descendants died, remained youthful while all others aged, kept their bodies free of the diseases which ravaged the rest of the population?  But gods: worship them as gods?"

"No, we must first be sure.  We must ask them."

"They will be angered."

"How can the honest concerns of their progeny anger them?"

"Such things are not for us to question."

"Why are they not?"

"Because."

Fearful and apprehensive, the people nonetheless resolved to approach their great father and great mother and ask whether or not they were gods and if they ought to be worshipped.

"You are making a terrible mistake, and we shall all perish for it!" their brothers warned.  "Do not trifle with gods!"

Along the way to the cottage where the creature and his mate lived, a small cottage made of smoothened mud and dried grasses and leaves which were pressed and held together with a sticky resin - a cottage placed some small distance from the rest of the population: along the way, the people encountered some tiny black things that, at first, lay like pebbles against the ground then moved of a sudden as the footsteps neared, scattering in a kind of semi-circle.  Momentarily, the things began burrowing into the moist earth; by the time the people reached the spot they had scattered to, they had disappeared.  The people moved on, quickly forgetting the strange little black things because of their preoccupation with their ancestry.

Since it was impossible for so modest a dwelling to accommodate such a multitude, the people, when they arrived, rapped at the door and, upon its being opened, asked the creature if he and his mate would honor their progeny by stepping amongst them.  Gladly was the assent given.  The father and mother of this race of beings cherished the company of their children, and had moved from their midst only out of respect for their children's mortality.  They felt strange, watching those they had given life to and nurtured growing old and feeble and eventually dying; and they could sense that their children felt uncomfortable in their presence, and perhaps even fearful.  It saddened them that this difference, which they could not account for, drove them apart from their loved ones; but they accepted it, as they had accepted everything that had happened since the days they had spent with their creator.

"What is it that has brought you here - and so many of you?" the creature asked.

"Dearest father - and dearest mother - there is a matter that has become of very great importance to us, and we wish to know your thoughts.  Please do not hold us irreverent for asking -"

"Irreverent?" the creature repeated.  "My children, surely you cannot imagine yourselves irreverent in my sight."

"Some of our brothers have said it is blasphemy for us to ask what we propose to."

"Blasphemy?  What strange concepts you bring to me.  But please: ask your question.  Have no fear of irreverence, or of blasphemy.  I value whatever it is you wish to tell me, and I gladly honor your questions."

"Are you - our father and mother - are you gods?"

The creature and his mate thought long and deeply about this.  It was a notion neither had ever considered, and it made them at once amused and awed: amused with the very absurdity of such a proposition, awed in that it offered some glimmer of explanation for their seeming immortality.  But "gods?"  Could it be?  Could they be gods - and be so without knowing it?  No; no, of course not.  And yet each could remember a time when they had no distinct idea of who or what they were.  It was only in recent times that they stopped thinking of themselves and referring to themselves as things - as mere objects; and began to consider their identities as unique beings, endowed with some intangible quality they were unable to discover in any other object.  So perhaps there was still more about themselves remaining undiscovered.  Perhaps they were gods.  But no, no.  Even if they were, they did not know it, so how could they pronounce it true?  And would it not place still greater distance between them and their children?  And what value was there in becoming a god if they lost those they loved?  To be a god, out of touch with the living; or a man and woman, surrounded by their children.

"We are what you decided to call those of our kind," the creature said at last.  "I am a man, my mate is a woman.  Accept us for what we are."

The people seemed satisfied with this response; they saw nothing cryptic in it, no ambiguities playing at its vortex, no irony underscoring it.  They had been there, they had heard it, they had witnessed its delivery; they understood its intent as well as its definition.  They went away reassured that those they had cherished as their father and mother were exactly that, and nothing else.  But their brothers were not convinced. It was not long before they were at the people again with doubts and questions and hints of great mysteries beyond their comprehension.  "'Accept us for what we are': there they have revealed themselves to you," the people's skeptical brothers insisted.  "They could not come right out and say they were gods.  To have done so would have reduced them to your level - the level of stupid creatures incapable of appreciating the beauty and the awe of the mysterious.  They chose metaphor instead, assuming you would understand."

"If we are stupid, and they are gods, should they not have known we would fail to understand?"

"You would question the very judgment of the gods?"

"We question yours," the people replied, turning and walking away from their brothers, who cursed the people's ignorance and want of mystical insight.  "There is an aesthetic to the universe," these brothers of man who would be their priests said among themselves.  "And to the mechanics of it as well."  "The universe is such that it is inconceivable for there not to be gods."  "It is all out of balance without a race of beings to preside over it."  "There must be order.  There must be rules, otherwise the purity of the harmony is compromised."  "And rulers to establish and enforce such rules as the needs of the universe dictate."  "The gods make the rules."  "And there must be priests to preserve them."  "Man in his ignorance would ultimately disrupt the natural order without a special caste to keep him in check."  "By all that's holy and sacred and beautiful there must be priests.  And man must accept his place in the great order of things."

"But how?" they wondered.  "How do we bring these great things to pass?  How can we make the people see?  How can we gain the power we need to bring it about?"  Those who would be priests were wound about with anxiety.  They could not sleep at night, nor could they hold down their food.  They grew weak and sickly and began to withdraw from the others; and, had a strange presence not entered paradise, or a dread series of events not occurred, they would surely have died.  But, as it was, they were saved.

*                        *                        *                        *                            *

A day and a half in the life of a god is as an eternity to a man; or it can as easily seem a moment, for time stretches when a god passes, or else shrinks to near invisibility.  And the air surrounding a given place might grow heavy or might evaporate to a great bubble rare enough to span the universe.  The seas might become a boiling caldron or might freeze solid.  All life might disintegrate in a burst of radiance, or it might solidify in eternal preservation.  Or - when a god passes - nothing might happen.

For a day and a half God sniffed and searched and in silence inspected in every way the shoreline of a great ocean reaching ten thousand miles into the quiet mist that slowly swirled and surged and crept amongst the many shorelines comprising this world, but one of a billion billion worlds lighting the universe.  God was drawn to this shoreline in His eternal quest for a place to sleep, and a home for his bride.  For a thousand years He had sought the perfect spot; once found, he would create his bride, her form whatever would do Him greatest glory, and set her there, that he might climb upon her and deposit His seed.

At the edge of the shore was an abundance of tiny skeletous ruins, of sea creatures which over the ages had died and been washed from the sea onto the land, as if that which supported their existence would not tolerate their extinction - as if the sea, eternal, could conceive of nothing temporal.  God kicked at these little remains, and each time his foot overturned one tiny skeleton an even tinier black creature ran from it to burrow beneath another.

"What wondrous creatures," God mused as He crushed several underfoot in his search for a bridal chamber.  His search took him beyond the shoreline, beyond the skeletons, beyond the endless rise and fall of the tide, drawing him ever nearer a great plain, inland a mile or more from the sea, stretching as far north and as far south as this continent itself.  "How dreary a place," God thought, "all green and flat and open."  Even so, something there compelled His approach; and, as He moved, He became oblivious to everything but one piece of this plain: the place which had once been a crater, then a lake, then a slowly filling hole.

The Clara Lux mountains - these, the sister peaks of God's queen, Wilhelmina: they did not yet exist; the forces which caused them to rise up from the ground still lay dormant.  And with nothing to stand high upon and lay claim to everything within sight or memory, God would never have lingered on this plain ten seconds had the pull of this crater not been so much more powerful than His will.

Presently He was standing in the very center of this crater, still oblivious to everything.  Then, gradually, the surrounding landscape grew real once more; and sounds distracted him.  A group of creatures some small distance off - humans, though known by no name by God - were making noises among themselves.  It suddenly dawned on God that He was the object of their attentions.  He abruptly turned toward them and began approaching.  They grew silent.  God smiled at the beauty of their silence.

"Greetings," He said.

They were reluctant to answer, but somehow knew that they must.  "Greetings," they called back in voices made deliberately loud in the hope of keeping this being at a distance.

"You mustn't shout," God chided them, aware of their apprehension.  Again He smiled.

"Who are you?" one person asked.

"Are you a god?" asked another.

"A god?" puzzled God.

"A great wondrous being who can do anything at will, and who can make recalcitrant persons obedient," came the explanation.

God considered this definition.  Then He replied, in an agitated voice.  "A god?  A god?  I am not a god: I am the god.  I am the one and the true and the only god!  And yet, I am not even the god for even that is too petty to identify me!  I am God!  Not a god, not the god, but God.  That I am, I am.  I am God.  Know all of ye this truth.  I am God."

"And all of this?" the people asked, pointing all around.

"All of this cannot be God for I alone am God!"

"But is it yours?" they asked.  "Is it of you?"  "Did you create it all?"

Again God carefully considered the matter before replying.  Then, at length, He said, simply, "Of course."  In a moment, He elaborated.  "This is all mine.  I created all of it."

"From nothing?"

"Of course from nothing.  What need have I, God, of matter when creation is an act of my will?  You try my patience with your stupid questionings."

"Forgive us," the humans cowered as they spoke.

God considered this as carefully as He had everything else that had occurred since His advent.  "These creatures," He mused, half aloud, "they are a delight.  They are almost deserving of forgiveness."

"I may, in time, forgive you your transgression," God said.  "If you prove yourselves worthy," He added.

"How may we do so?" the people asked.

"You are the only creatures who live here?" God asked.

"No," they replied, "there are others."

"Like you?"

"No!" came the emphatic response.  "They may appear as us, but they are as different from us as we are from you.  And as far beneath us as we are beneath you."

"Ah, I see.  They serve you, and obey you, and cower before you - as all inferior creatures must."

"They do not," was the reply.  "Damn then, they do not.  They would be our equals."

God made a face at this, as one might make upon beholding a piece of excrement upon his dinner plate.  "Bring one of them before me," He commanded.

Presently the priests - for that was who these cowering humans were - enticed one of their brothers away from the rest and brought him before this wondrous being upon whom they had bestowed the title of "God."

God approached to within inches of this creature, so alike the others in appearance, yet so unlike them in manner.  "So you do not serve and obey your betters," God admonished.

"Betters?" the man asked in innocent bewilderment.

"These," God gestured, "these - these -" God puzzled for a term with which He might categorize those who cowered before Him.

"Priests," they provided the term God sought.  "We are your priests, sworn in our deepest souls to serve you and you alone, the one true and eternal God."

The word "eternal" made God wince - and as quickly as He did, He realized His mistake.  "Eternal?" He mocked.  "What do you, puny priestly things that you are, know of eternal?  I've half a mind to destroy you all, and let you go search out eternity if you imagine you can!"

"Please: we meant no harm," the priests begged.

"Then perhaps I will spare you, this time.  But you," God again turned to the man to whom these priests had once been brothers, "you - foul stench upon this great plain - I will not spare.  I will commence to crush the very life out of you."  God laid hold of the man and was about to rend his limbs from his body when suddenly a thought came to him.  "No," he explained, slowly releasing the man, "I will not destroy you.  I will let these priests do it - as testament to their willingness to forever serve me, and me alone."  He handed the man over to the priests, saying "Sacrifice this creature!"

"But how?" they asked.  "Surely there must be a proper ceremony best suited to demonstrating our loyalty."

"There is," God admitted, sensing in a flash that these creatures who had become His priests had an unearthly dread of everything that was and, correspondingly, an unbearable need to shape everyday events into rigid little activities designed to assuage that monstrous dread, as if such petty contrivances could exercise control over the flux and flurry and unpredictable whims of the universe.  He sensed this, and knew as absolute truth that if He were to keep these priests as His playthings He must give them ritual upon ritual to fill the terrible void their fears had carved inside them.

"Come," God beckoned.  "Let us take this creature to a remote place, where I will show you in the greatest possible detail the exquisite rites I demand of every sacrifice made in my honor."

The priests were ecstatic, but at the same time apprehensive.  "Is there not a prescribed way of comporting ourselves to the place of sacrifice?" they half asked, half begged to know.

God smiled.  "But of course," He said, but gave no instructions, taking delight instead in the excruciating anxiety each step they took brought them, for He knew that they knew that not knowing the proper comportment they could not but fail to follow the proscribed movements.  God was beginning to like this otherwise dreary place.

At length, after many twists and turns in the itinerary, a spot remote enough from all else and unique enough for the giving of sacrifice was discovered - as much a discovery to God as to His newly acquired priests, for He had never been in this world before, had not known beforehand what places were best suited to His various purposes, had settled upon nothing yet save His resolve to do something with the old crater hole which had drawn Him here in the first place.  "Build me an altar," he commanded.  The priests looked all around for something to mold to their master's will, but found nothing in this barren place ten miles distant from their homes.  Not even dead tree stumps or dried up bushes inhabited this rock hard ground.  The priests, having nothing to gather, returned empty-handed.

"There is nothing to build with," they said in great despair.

"Then use your own bones!" God commanded, upon hearing which the priests fell to pleading for mercy, finally proposing to gather "Other bones" in place of theirs.  "Then do it, at once!" God commanded.  "I give you twenty-four hours, no more.  After that, I will bring a plague upon this place that will destroy all living things on this planet.  Go now, I await my altar."

The priests proceeded to their mission with such haste that they forgot the brother they had come here to sacrifice.  God, too, forgot him, having fallen to musing, once more, about the bride He envisioned, the great peak He would one day climb upon to perform the mating ritual described on a granite tablet that lay side by side with a hundred thousand others in a vast cavern ninety-three million cubits from the center of the universe.  Each tablet had been hewn from a great quarry beneath a sacred mountain's shadow, by a race of beings whose patience permitted an intricacy of detail unequalled anywhere.  Artesians, God and His fellow deities called them just before they murdered them and stole their handiwork.

And while God mused, the sacrificial victim patiently loosened his bonds and escaped.  He hurried back to the crater to tell the people the monstrous thing his brothers had almost done to him, and to warn them lest they try it again.

"They have gone mad," he exclaimed.  "They have come upon a sinister creature who calls Himself God, and who they seek to worship, and to build an altar to, and to sacrifice their brothers to.  None of us are safe here any longer.  Perhaps we should leave."

"Nonsense," the people replied.  "We outnumber them fifty to one - so what can these priests do if we stand together?"

"But this creature - this God - He may have great powers.  And what if He is a God?  Dare we go against a God?"

"We must protect ourselves," the people said.  "If God is nothing more than a bloodthirsty thug, then we have no choice but to fight Him."

"Should we not consult our father and our mother first?" the people's brother pleaded to know.

"Yes - if there is time."

"And what if they say we must obey this God?"

The people considered this question very well; then, at length, smiled and said only "They will not."

With this, the people, in a band, set out for their father and mother's cottage.  Along the way they encountered the priests, who indeed seemed quite mad.

"We must have bones!" the priests insisted.  "Give us your women and children that we might with the least effort and resistance obtain what we need.  Give them to us!  In the name of the almighty God give us the bones of your loved ones that we might build Him an altar of worship."

"Of sacrifice!" the intended first victim cried out, but the priests, not recognizing him, ignored his cry.

"Give us your women and children - now!" they demanded.  The people only stared, then made to move on.

"Your children at least!"  But the people kept moving on - and, outnumbered, the priests dared not man an assault on their children.

"What shall we do?" the priests asked among themselves as they watched the people disappear into the dark horizon.  "Where will we get bones?  For the dear lord our God must have bones or He can have no altar - and we no priesthood!  What shall we do - in the name of God what shall we do?"  But the horizon, darkening the people, the plain, the crater, the fumes of house fires - the earth itself - into a mountainous quicksand of tar, stood oblivious to priestly castes and priestly needs; and would give up no bones for the building of altars.  So the priests made for their rendezvous empty-handed, a resolve forming inside their heads that sickened them.

"There is but one way," the lost universe within the horizon kept echoing along the path of God's chosen place.  "Bones you must have; bones you shall give."  Over and over, till they stood once more before their lord and master.

"You need not wait for my command," God remarked to Himself.

The priests began their work.  Tearing and cutting in a howling devotion, they attained the materials of God's altar.  Their hands, feet, arms, legs and anything else they could rend from their own bodies strewed the ground about the divinity, to be pieced together by a hobbling, blood-soaked crew.  But through their agony they knew that they would be forevermore both priest and altar; that their God would be - could only be - theirs and theirs alone; and that their hold over their brothers would be absolute.

And when they were done, God beheld their handiwork and pronounced it "Not quite high enough."  So they tore their sex from their bodies - each and every priest - and made a topsoil.  At last their God was pleased.

"Now get the sacrificial victim," He commanded.  But there was none to be found.  In a rage God tore the altar apart, as the eyes of His priests screamed in horror.  "When you have someone to sacrifice," He said, "you may rebuild my altar."  And He walked away, becoming quickly lost in the rolling peaks of the horizon.

*                        *                        *                        *                        *

A season passed.  The priests became used to their wounds.  God roamed the great plain, day and night, in search of His first sacrifice.  Mounds began appearing throughout the land, from which tiny black creatures occasionally strayed.  In the night, people would feel something gnawing at their bodies and would brush it away, then return to sleep.  One day, a child playing amongst the mounds grew tired and fell asleep atop one.  This child awoke screaming and ran as fast as he could, but soon fell, unable to stop the devouring of his flesh by a great host of tiny black things.

As it happened, the creature and his mate, this entire race of beings' progenitors, were wandering in that same place and were drawn by the child's screams.  When they arrived, they found the child covered from head to toe as if with masses of tar.  They rushed to the child and began brushing away the thick dark covering. They had no difficulty, for the creatures - by the thousands - scurried away at their mere touch, revealing a mass of open, bleeding sores and tattered fragments of cloth and skin.  They picked up the silent, but still breathing child and carried him to their cottage, where they attempted ministering to his wounds, which had grown infected and festering.  When they had done all they could, the creature left to summon the people, while his mate stood vigil over the poor child.

But by the time the creature and his progeny returned to the cottage, the child had died.  His body was taken to the burial grounds and placed in a grave and covered over.  Even as the people were tamping the replaced earth, an army of the same tiny black creatures that had attacked the child were boring through the soil just beneath the surface to finish the work begun on the mound.

Word of this death reached the priests, who no longer went among the people, and had become sickly and unhappy once more, seeing that there was no one to lay upon the great altar their bones had built.  They at once went to God with their knowledge.

"What can this mean?" they asked.

The deity considered the question most carefully.  Then His face lit up.  "Did I not tell you I would visit a plague upon you, all of you?" He asked.

"But that was if we built no altar," the priests replied.  "And we have."

"It is a poor altar that wants a proper use," God said.  "Indeed, it is an altar that might as well not have been built, for all the good it does me.  So I have chosen to punish you - all of you - for your willfulness and disobedience.  I have brought a plague upon your land."

"But surely it will only destroy our brothers, and not us - for it is not we who disobey you," the priests pleaded.

"All will perish - unless I am given the honor I deserve," God pronounced, to the despair of His priests.  Then He proceeded to the altar and made as if He would tear it all down again.  The priests wailed and, as best they could, went down on their knees before their God.

"Please - oh please!" they begged.  "Spare our handiwork!  Please, Lord, spare it!"

"There must be someone upon it, by nightfall," God told His servants.  "Otherwise, it will so displease me to behold it that I will surely destroy it."

"We will steal someone - a child perhaps."

"No.  This time they must willingly bring me a sacrifice.  There can be no other way."  God walked away.  The priests suffered their faulty bodies to make haste to where their brothers were.  And when at last they arrived, their eyes lit up, for they knew in an instant that their time was at hand.

In a day, a paradise can arise from the sea; in a day, a star can disappear, or a shower of stars bespeckle the night; or a magical spell coerce a mountain where only clouds traverse.  And, in a day, a billion tiny beasts can muster an assault against an entire village.

The priests beheld the houses they grew up in slowly blacken as if a shadow had sprung from the ground itself to eclipse its way to the sky.  The people of the plain ran helter skelter, some half covered in the same shadowy phenomenon, some attempting to free their brothers and their meager possessions from the voracious grip of this shadow.  The beasts had risen from the earth to reclaim this plain, over which they had once held absolute dominion until a mysterious force within them had driven them underground to sleep for an age.  A thousand years ago they had ravaged everything; had erased all life from the earth; and now they were returning to reclaim their kingdom.

The priests called to their brothers.  "Save yourselves, our beloved brothers!  Save yourselves!  For it is a displeased God who has brought this plague upon you, and who alone can dispel it.  Come - gather about us - let us help you!  We know how to placate the deity.  Come!  Come with us.  Save yourselves."

Reason, the scourge had devoured more surely than it did the clothes and flesh and belongings of the people; so there was nothing to stop them.  They followed the priests to the secret place where God's altar awaited.

"Give up one of your own to be sacrificed," the priests persuaded their brothers.  And it was done.  A young man was grabbed up and laid upon the altar; and, as the beasts he had brought with him tore at his skin, a dagger plunged through his breast and freed his heart from its rivers of life.  God pronounced it well done, but unacceptable.

"I am too angry with you sinners to be assuaged with but one sacrificial victim.  Give me more!"

"How many?" the people asked in horror at this, their betrayal - and the betrayal of all they believed in - though by whom or what they did not know.

"I will let you know," was all God would say.

Thus began a day and a night of continual bloodshed.  Hundreds were sacrificed, one after the other, with barely time to remove the last before the next was offered.  Till finally the Deity had grown weary of the spectacle.

"That will do, for now," He said.  "But it will not do forever.  It's true I saw sacrificial blood, which is pleasing to your one true God.  But I heard far too few shrieks.  You have substituted quantity for quality.  The number of sacrificial victims is the measure of your realization that you must placate me above all other things in existence.  And this is as it should be.  But it is the intensity of your sacrificial offerings' shrieks that is the true measure of your love for me."  With this, God turned and walked away, leaving His priests free to set themselves in power over their brothers, which with the threat of yet more plagues they succeeded at long, long last in bringing about.

*                        *                        *                        *                        *

Miraculously, the plague ended as quickly as it had begun.  The beasts retreated to their vast burrows beneath the earth to once more sleep their thousand year sleep.  But they left behind a thousand thousand seeds, as surely as if they had each one crawled inside a living brain to deposit a larvae; for in the minds of men there remained a memory of their being as strong, as absolute as if they had never departed.  And this memory bored clear down to their impulses to direct their every action, to become a species of instinct.  The priests had only to mention them and the people trembled; and once the priests fully understood this, the threat of their return transformed into an edict as great as any force of nature.

"God will again bring this plague upon you," the priests had only to say to rule their brothers with iron certainty; for the people believed the beasts to have been sent by God, and sent away only when He was satisfied with their behavior.  Sacrifice became the supreme test of obedience, because only sacrifice could placate an angry God.

It was a long time before the creature and his mate heard of what had happened; it had happened so quickly, and traces remained only in the sacred place God had chosen for the giving of sacrifice - bones enough for a thousand altars abounded, strewn in fetid pools everywhere.  When they heard, they went at once to their children to learn how such a madness could have overtaken them that they would murder their own brothers.

"We were punished, father," they said.

"For what, and by whom?" the creature asked.

"For our sins, by God," was the reply.

"Sins - what sins?"

"We disobeyed God."

"God - what is this God that it makes demands of my children?"

"God is the supreme being," the people explained, as best they could, reflecting the mystic words of their priests; "He created everything."

"You asked me once if I were a god, did you not?"

"We did, father.  But we were mistaken.  The priests mistook you for who you were not."

"The priests?  Ah, yes: those of my children who sought to deceive their brothers.  Now they succeed."

"We were punished because we didn't believe."

"How punished?"

"By a horrible plague - an army of tiny black beasts who would have eaten us all alive had not the almighty intervened."

"Those tiny creatures?  A plague?  Sent in punishment?  This is nonsense!" the creature replied, but even as he was speaking a yet greater absurdity occurred to him, and he asked of his children how they were saved: what had they done to assuage this God of theirs.

"We proved our obedience with sacrifice.  We killed of our own that we might not all perish.  We had no choice."

"No choice?  It would have been better to have all died than to survive at the cost of even one of your brothers!  But surely you see this now that your sacrifices are at an end."

The people could not answer.  They could not tell their father and their mother that it had not come to an end, that still they sacrificed of their own that they might prove their obedience.

"It is at an end, is it not?" the creature asked.  Still no reply was given, and in this absence was a beast more voracious than a thousand thousand such beasts as had worked a day and a night at devouring humanity.  "It still goes on?  The fear that drove you mad is no more, yet the madness remains? How can this be?"

"God will return the plague to our world if we stop," the people said to their father.

"Where is this God of yours?  Take me that I may behold for a moment so evil a being as this one who threatens my children with unspeakable horrors unless they butcher one another before Him."

"We cannot, father.  The priests have forbidden it."

"Then I will find him myself."

"You must not."

"Who among you will stop me?" the creature asked.  And as none would step forward, he began his quest, accompanied by his mate.

He had covered this terrain many times in the past, when there was no one to seek, no one to walk with him, no one to try and restore to sanity.  But always before there was a peace in his steps, a vision of wonders to be discovered, a joy in simply being able to move across the land; now that was gone.  The same desperate purpose that gave his present mission a power and a sense of ennoblement stripped the beauty and the tranquility from it as if daggers had rent his skin in tatters.  Where before he saw a thousand schemes in every configuration, now he looked for clues and signs that might lead him to God.  And with every step the realization that he was no longer a part of this land grew stronger.  Once he imagined himself and the earth a single being; then he came to grasp the many distinctions between them; now he felt no kinship at all.  It was as an alien he traversed the great plain; and he knew he would never rekindle even so much as a spark of his former affinity.  He felt cursed, and forlorn; but his determination to locate this being who had taken so much from him was absolute.

And so it was that, one morning very early, when the sun had barely touched the massive clouds piling up at the horizon, he beheld a lone figure standing against a pile of rubble.  Rocks, he at first took the rubble to be; approaching nearer, however, he discovered the remains of his martyred children.  When he had come very close, he spoke.

"Are you the one who has brought slaughter to my people?" he asked.

"I am God," was the reply.  "Who are you that you dare desecrate this holy place?"

"This place is a desecration - and you are a desecrator."

"You will regret those words," said God.

"There is nothing left to regret," replied the creature.

"Who are you?"

"I am the father - and this is the mother - of humanity.  And you, who would be its God, are its despoiler.

"I will not be addressed in such a manner!"

"Then words are meaningless.  And names as well.  So let us return to the babbling of children."

"You," pronounced God, "shall return to the dusts from which I created you."

The creature, who might have laughed at such a notion, instead smiled, a smile of mirth and despair and the sense of the utter absurdity of seeking meaning in all that had happened since he first became aware of his existence and of the existence of all that surrounded him.  And, in a tone in perfect harmony with his expression, he answered the deity.  "You created nothing.  Even the chaos you stole my children out of, you had no part in bringing about.  It was all the doing of the stupidity of things."

Then he turned to his mate and their children's children; and, in a voice no man may speak more than once in his life, he addressed them for the last time.

"I am leaving, forever.  I shall disappear down into that cursed spot which some foolish thing once held dear.  I shall dig a hole so deep that no more digging can be done; and, there, I shall remain until I am no more.  I have brought legions of you upon this land, without thinking what foolishness I was committing.  You have been made to turn against one another.  I can no longer endure the sight of you.  Yet still I love you.  So I will leave.  Will you come with me?" the creature asked his mate.

"I cannot," she replied.  "These are my children; I cannot leave them."

"Then I leave behind a treasure greater than all the gods there are or could ever be, whatever that word signifies.  Good-bye."

"Good-bye."

The creature turned to go, never to look back.  "Stop him!" God commanded His people.  "Take him up, sacrifice him to me - or I will bring a thousand plagues upon you!"

At first the people would do nothing; they only watched their father retreating from them.  But the deity kept at them, as did His priests, until finally they gave up the last of their souls and rushed upon their father.  But he kept walking, and all the strength in all their hands could not hold him.  No harm could they do him; neither weapon nor claw could pierce his skin.  Yet not once did he look their way.  He kept faith with his path, till at last he stood beneath an ever darkening cloud, beholding the sun as it departed the great arch of horizon covering the land from one end to the other.  This was the exact spot he first grew aware of life.  He bent down to take a handful of dirt.  Many moments he debated whether to kiss it or spit upon it; then he simply let it slip, mote by mote, between his fingers.

He began digging.  The people, who were no longer of him, could not watch; so they left the crater forever to live among their altars and their bones and their prayers to the great deity who had replaced their father.  Slowly, the creature worked his way to the very center of the world, where he patiently awaited the end of time and the disintegration of his existence.

In a million ages, the great force which had created this strange creature and set him upon the land and gave him a mate returned.  But the crater - this piece so sacred and pleasing to it - was gone, buried beneath a mountain peak joined as far as the horizon's arch with other peaks, whittled by the many winds which met here to a sharpness as slick as glass.  Nor was there a trace of the creature and his mate.  The ground, from the shore to the mountains and beyond the mountains into the horizon, was littered with a host of tiny skeletons which clung to the matted earth like raindrops to the mighty clouds soaring overhead. 

The great force finally gave up wishing to coax life from this ball of water and fire and air and earth.  "I am finished with this place," it spoke to itself, assuming once more the shape of a whirling gray cloud which soared far beyond the other clouds into the endless dark reaches of timeless horizons, never again to appear before this world.