A man is held captive by an all-powerful being. How do you defeat someone who can do anything and everything?
A Breath of Wind
Who knows when--
The old bastard shit himself again today, gallons of it, a brown river flowing down his hairy, scabbed legs, pouring out onto the marble floor, making diarrheic pools and puddles around the markings and engravings so carefully carved into the tiles. I know he did it on purpose. With his robe parted and dangling around him, he gave me that look right before it all came gushing out, the look that said, oh so you think you’re happy? Try this out, you little whore. Drown in it.
That was Francesca again. I thought she was gone. But she took over, used my pen and parchment, wrote the entry above. I’d just asked him about the tiles that morning, commented on how lovely they were. He said they were Egyptian marble with true hieroglyphs carved in them. I thought they were wonderful. Still trying to find beauty, even here. Still hoping that life could be lived here contentedly. (Later he laughed and said it was all bullshit, that the engravings were done with a laser.)
I spent the afternoon mopping up the mess, pushing it down drains, then on my hands and knees wiping up every last spot, trying not to smell it. He doesn’t need to eat; he doesn’t need to excrete. But he does both anyway. Later I will clean his robe. I’m always cleaning his robe, that white fabric that doesn’t feel like anything natural.
The kneeling posture reminds me of my days at San Severino happily scrubbing the tiles on the floor of the chapel, Brother Jeremiah nearby telling me some grand story from history, something that put everything in perspective. Real life, real smells, real laughter. The bristles scraping on the floor, the scent of the soapy water, the morning sunlight beginning to brighten the stained-glass windows. A whole world, my whole world. A world I loved.
Now here. He acted like he didn’t even notice his mess, just went up the marble staircase to the upper level. His eyes were red-veined; his hair slick with dirt. Grumbled something about having to fix some things for ‘them’. He was lying. He never paid attention to ‘them’ any longer. His mumblings make little sense, his actions are nonsensical; only when he punishes me does that gleam of intelligence creep into his eyes. His open robe flapped behind him, revealing his naked rear end. He always lets the robe fly open, showing his huge genitalia, dark and unmoving. He knows it shames me.
Francesca knew about that disease, Alzheimer’s. Could he have it? I got a little information about it from her. He could be losing his capabilities. What should I do then? Francesca would say I should just leave. But I don’t know how. I don’t know where ‘this’ is, so I’m certain I wouldn’t know how to leave it.
I write in her language now. Because I was with her for so long. I understand many speak it today. (How can I know what is going on in the world today? He doesn’t let me see anything or read anything that is current. All the books in the huge library below seem to be from years and years ago. I have read every one of them.) There is a word I’ve learned in my reading: entropy. The movement of the universe toward disorder. If his mind is moving towards disorder, then what happens? He’s calling me now, that bell. He doesn’t need to ring the bell. He could just think a summons to me and I’d know. But he uses the bell. Night and day. (Night? Day? Do they matter here?) He knows I hate it.
He’s a sadist. Would love to put me on a cross, drive nails into my living hands and feet, hear me scream, scream his name. It would entertain him. Divert him. I would rip my bloody hand away from the wood and drive the nail into his eye. It wouldn’t kill him, it couldn’t. But he might feel a little pain. Can he? Are there pain sensors in his flesh? I want to cause him great pain, tear him with my teeth, hear him howl. He must know this. Why aren’t I dead? Why aren’t I writhing in fiery agony? I’d rather be writhing in fiery agony. But he wouldn’t even do that. He’d just put me back there, with the men. That would be the worst. All the men with their bad breath and slick skin, their pimples and tight grins. He’d put me there.
Francesca came again. In the middle of the night, or what passes for it. He does put out the lights in the house every so often. But there’s still a glow from outside during our ‘night’. It’s not sunlight, something else that glows but gives no shadows. Francesca is asking for trouble. The problem is: if he punishes her, he’ll punish me.
Francesca presented one theory to me: he’s an alien. Not from another country, but another planet. He has powers that are normal to his race but seem superhuman here: telepathy, psychokinesis, time travel. That would explain many things, but not all of them.
It would not explain his son. Some extraterrestrial would not have a son that looks human. His son came here once. I met him and liked him immensely. He had brown, clear eyes, full of life. His fingers were soft like pillows. I wasn’t sure if he was The One I’d read about because he didn’t look like all the paintings and sculptures. But he was warm and understanding. To me, at least.
To his father, he was wrath personified, shouting at him about his treatment of ‘them’, his lack of emotion, his failing them in their time of need. His father just laughed. Not a happy laugh, never a happy laugh. Something scratchy comes from his throat, but it doesn’t have anything to do with humor. He stroked his greasy hair, said that his son spent too much time with them so it warped his perspective. Actually, neither of them talked, it was all done with gestures and lights. But I understood.
The son left, said he was going to another universe. I didn’t know there was another universe. I never did know much. I was happy not knowing. At San Severino, I took pleasure in small things: feeding the chickens, working in the garden, talking to Brother Jeremiah. Jeremiah knew more, had read all the Scriptures and understood them. I’d read them, but many of the words were hard. (Now I understand more of them; there is a Bible in the library.) Jeremiah would tell me what they meant. Jeremiah with his beard and his laugh. I miss him. Him more than anyone. I should miss my mother and father more, but I can’t remember their faces. I remember every crease and fold of Jeremiah’s, remember seeing those features contorted in pain, that mouth that told so many grand stories screaming for relief, any relief. I remember.
He wears a beard as well, a long white one. When he summoned me yesterday, he made me dig through that dirty beard for fleas. I found some – where could they have come from? Then he made me put oil on his body. He doesn’t need oil on his body. He can do anything he wants, so he doesn’t even need his body. But he uses it to make me do things.
That sounds self-centered, that he made his form solid just to torture me. Maybe I’m mad. Maybe I caught the same fever Jeremiah did, maybe I’m writhing in pain on a cot in the monastery, maybe all this is a dream I’m having before I die. I hope it is.
Because the only other explanation is also madness. But it is the explanation I keep returning to: He is God.
As I wrote those words, he summoned me. This time he rang no bell. He just made me rise through the air, through ceiling and floor, into his viewing room. I call it his viewing room because he has viewing things in it: telescopes, monitors, screens. He watches them. He watches ‘them’ on them – the people of the world below. I see faces on the monitors, faces in prayer, faces in pain, faces in despair. Once when I looked through the telescope, I saw large buildings and fires. I don’t know what any of it means. For when I look out the windows of the house, or when I walk out on a terrace and look down, I can see nothing. Nothing but the mountain wasteland beneath us. So how can the telescope show me a city? I would see some hint of the city somewhere. But nothing. Just stone, miles and miles of stone sloping down. I’ve asked him about it but he just does what he always does: pats me on the head and tells me I couldn’t possibly understand. Just believe, don’t try to understand.
Now he was in one of his rages. He cursed in languages I don’t know, called me a cur and a whelp, then poured sounds into my mind, that they all were ungrateful and uncaring, that they all should die, how can they possibly want so much, ask so many things of him. (Francesca says that’s what drove him mad.) When he gets like this, he wants to break things and hurt someone. So I knelt down, as I always do, prepared to take the blow. Usually he hits me so hard that I don’t know how my body can stay together. But he keeps me alive. Once he even threw me over the terrace and I fell and fell forever, then smashed onto the side of the mountain. I could feel every bone in my body break. I prayed for death. But I rose back up through the air; I was made whole; and I served him once more.
This time before the blow came, I felt a tingling up my spine. It was a new feeling, as if some kind of electricity was invading my body. And I heard another voice inside me. It was a whisper that at first I couldn’t identify. It hissed “Hit him.” I shivered. If I hit him, he could blast me into atoms, he could crush me with the flagstones, he could put me back on earth inside a worm or a cockroach. Where did this thought come from? “Just fucking hit him.” Francesca. Inside me. This is the first time she’s ever spoken to me while I am awake. We share the same body, but we are never conscious at the same time. I’m not even certain that she’s really there inside me. Sometimes I think it’s just a sort of spiritual residue of our time together. So how could she be whispering to me inside my mind?
“Never mind how. Just hit him. He’s a goddam bully. Hit him and he’ll leave us alone.” She knows my thoughts. How can that be? Maybe I’m the one who’s mad. Perhaps I’m on that cot at San Severino burning with fever. Or I am here and am mad. Multiple personalities. My time here could drive me mad. Maybe I want to die and this is my way to achieve it.
“You don’t want to die and you’re not mad. Just kick his ass.” I looked at him. He was speaking English, I suppose – or he just made me understand what he was saying: “WOULD YOU DARE QUESTION ME CONCERNING MY CHILDREN, OR INSTRUCT ME IN MY HANDIWORK?” He stood over me. From somewhere he’d gotten a huge wooden pike. I’d felt that pike before. “His children? If they’re his children, they need to be moved to foster homes.” I wasn’t sure what a foster home was, but I got Francesca’s meaning.
“I ALONE, I MADE THE EARTH AND CREATED MAN UPON IT; I, WITH MY OWN HANDS, STRETCHED OUT THE HEAVENS AND CAUSED ALL THEIR HOST TO SHINE.” He raised the pike. It had a piece of metal at the bottom, like a spear. He aimed that at my head. I didn’t really care about the beatings any more. Because, after a time, I would heal. It was the other punishments that hurt me more. Being with Francesca, that hurt me. That was when I’d questioned him.
Why am I here? I’d asked. Why me? At first, of course, I thought I was blessed to serve God and fulfill all his needs. But after he punished me for small mistakes, after years and aeons of torture, of having my hands crushed and my stomach split open, my entrails floating in front of my face for me to see, my skull cracked, my tongue pulled from my mouth… after all that, I knew I wasn’t in Paradise. (He’d said I’d deserved every one of those beatings because of my lack of faith and my impure thoughts.) So I asked why. We were in his viewing room and he had his face to the telescope. He did not acknowledge me until I spoke. Then his great body became still. He slowly turned to me. For an instant, I thought I could see a burning bush. His eyes turned fiery red. His hair trembled as if some sort of gas was forcing its way out of his body. Then he smiled, that grin of contempt, and he told me. “BECAUSE YOU DOUBTED ME.” Doubted you? I always served you gladly, always prayed and kept your word at San Severino. “NO.”
And he showed me. Showed me by Brother Jeremiah’s bed as he lay dying, as the fever gripped him, as his body contorted in pain, as his face became a mask of agony, as his screams became that of a little baby wondering why he hurt so much. I’d spent seven nights sleeping on the floor by Jeremiah’s cot, putting cool linens on his face, cleaning him, murmuring soothing words. I knew he was dying. That didn’t concern me. We all die. But did he have to die so painfully? Out of all the people to get the plague, why the ever-faithful, ever-happy, ever-loving Jeremiah? He’d only done God’s work all his life; he loved God dearly; he taught God’s word and through his joyfulness showed us what it meant to live God’s way. Why did he have to suffer so? I knelt next to Jeremiah’s cot, looked up to the sky, shook my fist and said “Why him? How could you choose him? It must be some mistake.” I lay my body over Jeremiah’s, trying to stop his tremblings. I wept. “Why him? Why not me? How could you choose him?” Then I wiped the spittle from Jeremiah’s beautiful brown beard and looked into his eyes. For a brief moment there was no pain. He gazed up at me. And before he died, he touched my hand and gestured for me to lean down. I did and he said to me: “E la Volonta di Dio.” It is the will of God. I looked at him, at the lines of pain that streaked his ruddy face, at his milky pupils. And I said “Why?” He did not hear me.
“YOU DOUBTED ME.” “I asked why. I only asked why.” “YOU DOUBTED ME.” “Can’t we ask why?” And then he sent me. He sent me to Francesca. I was confused, disoriented, just felt heat, smelled a stale smell like rancid milk. I couldn’t see for a time. Then I realized my eyes were closed. I opened them, quickly shut them again. There was someone on top of me. Someone heavy. And he was inside of me.
I’d never been with a woman, didn’t know anything about sex. I’d been sent to San Severino by my parents when I was a boy. I’d been taught that sex was sinful, that it was not for those of us dedicated to God. When I felt urges, I talked to Jeremiah or to my confessor, Brother Jonah. They explained to me that I must move beyond the needs of the body. And I did.
It took me a long time to figure out what was happening. Then I screamed. Inside. My body didn’t scream. My body continued the sex act, pretending to enjoy it. My body caressed the fat man and whispered joyless words of comfort to him. Then my body dressed and took money from him. He left. My body smoked a cigarette. There was a ringing sound. I didn’t know what a telephone was then. My body answered it, said she was Francesca. Said, yes, she had time tonight. I screamed: “No, there is no time!” But the body ignored me. That was the beginning of my time with Francesca.
She was a prostitute in Los Angeles in the 1980’s. That seems impossibly distant to me, so far in the future. She had men, many of them: a candidate for governor who whipped her; a minister who dressed her in schoolgirl clothes; a television reporter who liked being urinated upon. She took all of them. I took all of them. I stayed with her for fifteen years. She became a cocaine addict. I tried to stop her when she’d look at the photo album of her parents, of herself as a cute little blonde girl smiling in the snow – that always led to the cocaine.
She knew I was there. She’d talk to me, she called me her guardian angel. But I couldn’t really do anything. (Once I did, only once.) The only part of her I could control was her eyes. And I never wanted to open her eyes after that first night.
The day she died she’d done cocaine and giggled at the man in the black stockings. The drugs made her do it. The giggling made him mad. He shot her in the abdomen. She took a long time to die. As she died, He brought me from her, back to the house.
He assumed I’d be happy to be back in the house. The gleaming marble, the clean and sparkling porcelain, the stainless silver. My body was indeed glad to be there. It slept in my bed with those crisp new sheets so soundly. (He never sleeps.) But my mind hated it, hated being his puppet. I tried to escape. I walked down the mountain for days, through snow and rain and fog. When I thought I was nearing civilization, I peered forward, only to see his house again. I ran away. And ended at the front door of the house again. He waited above on a terrace, laughing that screeching laugh. I cursed him. So he put me inside others, worse than Francesca.
I became an infant in Africa dying of starvation, ants crawling over my face, eating my eyes; I became a man dying of a horrible debilitating disease whose parents locked him in a room and prayed for him to go to hell; I became a prisoner having iron pincers driven into my flesh by the Inquisition; I became a girl whose father visited her every night and hurt her in ways I couldn’t ever have imagined; I became a person who was crucified but wouldn’t die.
When I came back to the house, I knew I had to submit. I was never one to rebel, to fight. I had submitted to God as a boy, I would submit to God now. It was my fate. The forces of destiny that pulled the strings of life wanted me here. I was supposed to be here. Taking care of him. So I did.
I thought that perhaps I was going to help him get well. Then he could take care of everyone again the way he had before. So I pampered him, gave him everything, cooked him food, washed his blood-stained bedclothes, wiped his grimy body, rinsed the filth from his hair and beard. But every time I would do something wrong - so he said - and he’d punish me. Or I would just think something – like “why” – and he would punish me. So I submitted to his punishments. They were my fate.
But now Francesca told me to fight back. Why would he allow her to be in me unless I was supposed to get her advice? Could she be Satan? Could this be a test? No, I’d had many tests, I’d restrained from any kind of disobedience to him. It was time to try something else. He might be Satan. I could be in Hell and he could be Satan. If I fought him, vanquished him, then maybe I’d really be able to go to Heaven.
I looked at the metal point on the pike coming at my face. I stood. He stopped for a moment. “I AM THE FIRST, AND TO THE LAST OF THEM, I AM HE.” But Satan could know those words, twist those words.
As I thought these thoughts, as Francesca whispered to me “yesyesyes”, I felt a flood of power. I felt like this was the right action, to use my own force to combat his. He could punish me and punish me, but he couldn’t kill me, couldn’t destroy my spirit. I had to fight back, smash my fists into that ugly face, rip that white beard, lift that body and throw it.
I stood. I put my hands on the pike, pulled it. He pulled back, growled, an animal thing that would have frightened me before. Not now. I pulled again; he almost lost his balance. “YOU DARE?” I nodded. I dare. “THEN FEEL MY WRATH.”
I heard thunder crack, saw lights flash outside; the air became charged with some sort of current. He would either obliterate me or I would stop him. Now.
I pulled the pike from his grasp, pointed the metal tip at his face. I brought my arm back, about to plunge it forward, lusting to plunge it forward, hoping to see his blood spatter on me, feel its warmth on my face and hands. I thought of that image, him holding his face in his hands, his robe smeared red, his voice, that booming thing, screaming in pain. I smiled. He might not die; he might punish me forever. But I wanted him to feel pain once. It was suddenly quiet. No thunder, no wind. As if the world awaited my action. Waited for me. Not him. I moved my arm forward.
A knock. Behind me. But there was nothing else here, no one else. It was always just me and him. Another knock. Harder, insistent. I paused, turned. The front door. Someone knocked below at the front door. Nobody ever knocked at the front door. We were nowhere. There was no one to come here; all the someones were somewhere else.
The knock again. I looked at him. This is another of his tricks. This is his way to distract me so that he can punish me. But he looked as confused as I was. I know his expressions. He does not hide them, he does not dissemble. He has no need to.
I dropped the pike. We both walked from the room to the top of the staircase and stood there.
We didn’t move. What were we supposed to do? How could someone be there? And how could this someone surprise him? It was impossible. We should just ignore the knock and it will go away, whatever it is. But I couldn’t. I started down the stairs, then stopped. “You know who it is. You have to.” He nodded. “I DO. BUT I DON’T UNDERSTAND.” God doesn’t understand. That must be a first. I raced down the stairs, my bare feet slipping and sliding on the marble. He stayed above.
I rushed forward, put my hand on the knob and stopped. I was trembling. Was it fear? Fear of the unknown? Or was it joy? Joy that another power exists, something beyond him. Proving that perhaps he isn’t God. He’s something else. Something I can fight. Something that can’t always punish me. I pulled the door open and smelled the cold mountain air, then a scent of flowers.
She stood there in hat and coat, blonde curls peeking out over her collar. She was the most beautiful being I’ve ever seen. She wore mittens, not gloves. Red mittens. (Francesca had mittens.) And boots, green boots. There was no way in all the universe she could be standing here. She looked to be about ten-years-old. She smiled, showing small white teeth, not straight, not perfect, but beautiful teeth. The left incisor was bigger than the rest. She quickly closed her mouth to hide it. “Hello.” She spoke as if it were the most natural thing in the world for her to be standing atop an endless mountain outside God’s house. “Hello,” I said, hoping I was speaking in English. When I spoke to him, it didn’t matter what language I spoke. He knew them all. I never remembered if I was speaking Italian or English or Latin or anything at all. Not since my days inside Francesca have I had to think about having a conversation with someone. I remembered to hold out my hand to her.
She smiled again, revealing those teeth that seemed to embarrass her, took my hand in her right mitten and curtseyed. I’d never seen anything so amazing. “I’m Mia,” she said as she finished the curtsey, giving my hand a squeeze. “Mia,” I said, letting my tongue roll the name around on my mouth. It was a new word to me, a new living word. I loved that word, like a newborn animal or plant standing uncertainly in the sunshine. “Come in, please.” I pulled her forward by her mitten, almost forcing her into the house. I needed her to be in the house. I didn’t want her to fade away like a dream.
She looked up in awe. I suppose I was awe-struck the first time I saw it. The walls are of some kind of opaque crystal, the ceiling stretches away to forever, the staircase is massive, like something the Egyptians might have built with thousands of laborers. And then to see him standing atop the stairs, towering over us, pulled up to his full height (his robe closed and fastened around him.) He smiled down on her benignly, just as I used to see in those paintings in Church: God the Father smiling down on his lambs.
“WELCOME TO MY HOUSE.”
“Thank you. I’m looking for my grandmother.”
He looked at me quizzically. I shrugged my shoulders. He’d know better than I.
“HOW DID YOU GET HERE?”
“My Gramma always said that if I wanted to see her when she was gone, I just had to think real hard and walk and walk – and I’d get to her. Is she here?”
I looked at him. Was he going to blast her back to earth? Was he going to condemn her as a liar? Was he going to swear she was some kind of errant ghost or spirit, drive her from here? I couldn’t let that happen.
“She’s not here. Why don’t you come in and rest a while? Then maybe we can help you.”
Something tickled at the base of my skull. “She’s his. I smell him all over her. Don’t fall for it.” I tried to ignore Francesca.
“We have lots of rooms here. You can sleep in one if you’d like.”
She stood there, deciding.
“I am tired. But Gramma is supposed to be here. She said I’d get to her if I just kept walking.”
“Maybe you’re not there yet; maybe your grandmother wanted you to stay here for a time and then find her.”
She liked that, nodded and came in, taking off her heavy coat. It was some man-made material, slick to the touch. It must have been terribly cold outside. It was still somewhat dark. He never let it get completely pitch black. There was always some kind of glow. But it got cold, mostly to discourage me from going anywhere.
“I WOULD LIKE TO TALK WITH YOU. AFTER YOU REST.”
That made me more confused. He never waited for anything, he was instant gratification. What he thought, what he desired, he got. So what was this girl?
“I told you. She’s his. She’s a fucking creation of his. More torture for you.”
I thought to Francesca: “Why so elaborate a deception? He’s never worked that way before. He’s a God of Wrath, not of pretence.” “He’s getting wilier in his old age.” Francesca was no help. “Throw her out a window, then hit him. He can be hurt, I know it.”
I shrugged her off, walked up the stairs ahead of Mia. She marveled at everything and I marveled with her, seeing it all fresh and new, like I did aeons before when I arrived. The Babylonian tapestries, the Greek sculptures, the huge computer screens that showed images stretching to infinity. They were all new to her.
When I got to the room I’d planned for her to use, the bed was made and there were pajamas her size laid out for her. Should I be suspicious? Mia is an anagram of “I Am” which sometimes is taken to be the meaning of “Yahweh”. “You got it, asshole. It’s all big Yahweh’s practical joke.” Francesca’s voice was like the hiss of a serpent. I chose to ignore her again.
Mia smiled purely and brightly. She took no special notice that the room seemed made for her. She thanked me and I told her to rest as long as she liked. She said she wouldn’t rest long since she wanted to see her grandmother.
“You were, are, very close to her?”
“She’s all I have. She taught me everything.”
“Then I’m sure you’ll find her.”
“I know I will.”
I left her there and went back to the viewing room. He sat on a large divan, his arms in his lap. It was a pose I’d never seen before. I decided to be firm.
“Who is she?”
“Yes. What more? You know.”
“MIA RUSNIAK. LIVES OUTSIDE OF CHICAGO. HER GRANDMOTHER DIED LAST WEEK. I TOOK HER. IT WAS HER TIME.”
“But Mia doesn’t think so.”
“THE CHILD’S BELIEF IS STRONG. SOMEHOW SHE HAS WILLED HERSELF ONTO OUR PLANE.”
That’s the first time he’s admitted that we don’t live in the same place as everyone else.
“How can she do that without you knowing about it?”
“PERHAPS I FELT SOMETHING. BUT MY ATTENTION WAS ELSEWHERE. SHE IS SO SMALL.”
Yes, so small and helpless. What do you have planned for her?
“Can you help her?”
“NONE CAN PASS INTO HEAVEN WITHOUT FIRST LOSING THEIR CORPOREAL STATE.”
“None except your mother, I was taught.”
“THAT IS A TALK FOR ANOTHER TIME. SHE CANNOT GO THERE.”
“But can you arrange for her to see her grandmother without actually going there?”
It was more than a question. It was an attempt to prove he wasn’t divine. How could there be something he could not do? Francesca always had that thought when I lived in her: could God make a boulder so big that he could not lift it?
His eyes were clear, his hands smooth. This was the longest conversation I’d ever had with him without getting punished. I almost stopped hating him.
“THERE MUST BE A WAY. I WILL THINK ABOUT THIS. LEAVE ME.”
I left for my room below. He made me live in the servants’ quarters. I assumed they were the servants’ quarters, after studying the designs of many mansions and palaces through the ages. It was a simple room. It was all I needed. I kept a cross on the wall. Because I liked his Son. “You’re a fool!” I could feel the heat of Francesca’s feelings up my spine. “I choose to believe in her,” I thought back. “You chose to believe in him and his goodness for many years. Until you came here.” “I could be mistaken about him.” “What the fuck do you mean?” “He may not be God.” That shut her up. I curled up on my bed and smiled.
I slept the best sleep in memory and awoke thinking of her and her pure smile. I wanted to be with her. It wasn’t just that I wanted the company of another human, though there was that. It was Mia. She was goodness and belief and innocence, all those things I’d hoped to be when I went to San Severino. I wanted to rush to her, hear her voice, see those curls. She could be my little sister. She could—
She could be Francesca. Francesca as a child. Is this another trick? I can barely recall that photograph of Francesca, the one she secretly looked at. That girl was blonde. Was she the same?
Or was she that other girl, the one I’d lived inside, the one whose father did those terrible things to her.
Had he brought one of them here, to torment me again? Or would he put me inside her and send me back?
“Now you’re on the right track. She’s his. But she’s not me. I’d know.” “You looked like her,” I thought back to Francesca. Or perhaps I spoke aloud. I couldn’t tell the difference any more.
“Looked like me?”
She was in my doorway, wearing those fuzzy pajamas, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“Someone I knew, that’s all.”
“Was she nice?”
I paused. “Very nice. She wanted to be nice, that’s all she wanted.” “Thank you for that.” I felt Francesca’s pressure on my spine, a feeling of warmth.
“May I go to my grandmother today?”
Always the talk of the grandmother. That didn’t make sense to me. That seemed far too complicated a deception for him. What did the grandmother have to do with anything? “Who says he needs to make sense? He’s insane. He’s been mad for years, crazy as a fucking loon. You know that. Why else would he act like he does?” I silenced Francesca as best I could.
“That’s not up to me, Mia. We have to ask him.”
“May I ask him now?”
“Let’s go to him. Do you want to change out of those pajamas?”
She blushed prettily, then ran back to her room to change. She came out in a knee-length plaid skirt and a white blouse. She was magnificent.
He was in the dining room. This was only the third time I’d ever seen him use it. He did eat, though I didn’t know if it was for pleasure or simply to make me clean up after him when he evacuated the food and fluid. There were no toilets here, merely holes in the floor that led I know not where. He wouldn’t use the holes, just went where he felt like it. It was my job to hunt around the house and find those messes. If I didn’t, then I would be punished. Sometimes he made my towels disappear so that I put my hand in the mess. Other times he’d take what I’d missed and put it in my bed. After that happened twice, I was always very careful to check under the bedclothes before I went to sleep.
He had a feast ready for her: eggs, bacon, sausages, rice, raw fish, noodles, beef, oysters, candies, chocolates, ice cream, breads of all kinds and sizes – many toasted on plates already (though there was no toaster in sight), exquisitely-designed small pastries that seemed too beautiful to eat, at least twelve different kinds of juices. Why do this if she was his creature? Was it to confuse me?
She squealed and filled her plate with eggs and chocolate and bread, her eyes wide with excitement.
“I’ve never seen so much food. I don’t know what it all is.”
“EAT. AS MUCH AS YOU LIKE. I WILL GET MORE FOR YOU.”
I looked at him. He looked like… when I was inside Francesca once, she went to one of those shopping malls, just to get away from the men. It was Christmas and she stopped and sat to watch the children, all lined up. I didn’t understand the custom, but I saw it in her mind: sitting on Santa’s lap, making wishes for Christmas. Francesca stood up after a time and got in line. There were giggles from those around her; she pulled her fur collar tight about her to ward off the nasty stares of the parents. When she got to Santa, he played along with her, let her sit on his knee without any sexual innuendo at all. Merely touched her hand and asked her what she wanted for Christmas. His voice was warm like a fire on a winter night. His eyes seemed to have a light from inside them. Francesca wept and didn’t say anything, then got up and left. He wished her a Merry Christmas.
He looked like that Santa Claus, his eyes light and happy, his face oddly uncreased, no trace of insanity, just a warm concern. This was the God I’d dreamt of. This was the God that ruled the world, the real one. Not the creature that had tortured me.
After she’d had her third course of ice cream, she smiled at him.
“May I please see my grandmother now?”
He looked at her for a moment, saying nothing. Just considered her, much as a person looks at a puppy.
“YOUR BELIEF IS STRONG.”
“I know everything my grandmother told me is true . She read to me about you every day. From the Bible. I knew that if Moses and David could speak to you, then I could, too.”
“YOU CAME TO ME. NO ONE ELSE HAS EVER COME TO ME UNLESS I SUMMONED THEM.”
“Maybe you did summon me. You just didn’t know it.”
That startled him into silence again. He wiped his face – was that a tear at the corner of his eye? I didn’t think he could cry.
“YOU ARE MORE PRECIOUS TO ME THAN THE ASSYRIANS. I WOULD GIVE THE EDOMITES IN EXCHANGE FOR YOU, AND THE LEUMMIN FOR YOUR LIFE.”
“So you’ll bring me to my grandmother.”
His face wrinkled in thought. I’d never seen him really think about anything. He didn’t need to. He knew all.
“I WILL CONSIDER IT. TONIGHT YOU WILL HAVE MY ANSWER. I WOULD LIKE YOU TO BE MY GUEST TILL THEN.”
He turned to me.
“YOU WILL SHOW HER THE GROUNDS. YOU WILL GIVE HER WHATEVER SHE WANTS.”
I nodded. I wanted to do that. For the first time, we were in agreement.
“You should put your coat and mittens on. It’s cold outside.”
“NO. IT IS WARM. I HAVE MADE IT SO.”
Then there was a flash of lightning, a crack of thunder, a puff of smoke, and he was gone. He’d never needed to do that before. Was he showing off for her?
This has perhaps been the best time of my life. Though I’m not sure I’m living any longer. I’m not sure of anything any more. My life is but a breath of wind, that’s what scripture says.
I showed her my world. And through her eyes, I saw the wonder of it. The mountains rising one upon the other like majestic white soldiers, the twin suns with their dueling lights in the sky, the small bushes scrabbling for existence, proudly pushing leaves up towards the heavens, the view that went on and on and on. She said she’d never seen anything like it. I looked on it as a prison, but to her it was a playground.
She taught me how to make a snowball. It was warm and sweet. We played ‘tag’ among the caves of the near mountain that I call Romulus. She told me jokes that she heard at school. I understood none of them, but I laughed loudly just to watch her smile.
Finally, when we were both quite tired, seated on an outcropping overlooking his palace, she asked me again. “Is he God?”
I decided not to toy with her. “I don’t know. I have thought he is many things.”
“How could he be here and make all these things happen if he’s not God? How could he know about grandmother if he’s not God?”
“Maybe…” I paused. Would I have wanted anyone to say these things to me when I was ten-years-old and had planned my life around the monastery at San Severino? Would I have wanted my world shattered? “You should have had it shattered.” “Hush, Francesca,” I thought back.
“Who’s that?” I froze. She couldn’t hear Francesca, could she?
“The lady I see floating beside you. She’s talking to you.”
“You see her? You hear her?”
She nodded primly.
“She’s, she’s a spirit and she visits me from time to time.”
“Like grandmother in heaven?”
Francesca started laughing then, loud snorts that didn’t communicate any joy. “Heaven. Sure, heaven.”
Mia looked up past me.
“What’s your name?”
“You’re very beautiful.”
I could feel a softness suddenly in Francesca, something I’d never felt in her before.
“Look, kid, go home. I don’t know how you got here but you have to go back. He’s mad, totally mad. He’s sick. You need to leave him alone.”
Mia looked at me. “Do you think she’s right?”
“Maybe. There are many things he could be. If he is God, then his actions don’t always make sense.”
“Grandmother told me that we can’t always understand God’s plan, but just have faith that it will all work out well in the end. Maybe not in this life, but in the one after. ”
Francesca screamed, a loud shrill thing like wind in bare trees.
“Don’t pay attention to her, Mia. She’s just upset.”
I wondered if Mia could give me answers. Her thoughts were so pure and direct.
“What if each of us has his or her own heaven with his or her own God? Yes, there’s a big God in charge of it all, but after we die, we create our own paradise – or something – where we spend the rest of our days. This could be my afterlife and no one else’s. This could be my destiny.”
“Then why the fuck am I here?” Francesca roared in my brain.
Mia looked away.
“Please, Mia, I’m sorry. She doesn’t know what she’s saying.”
“But why is she here if this is your heaven?” I’d never said heaven. Nor would I.
“Maybe I put her here. Maybe she doesn’t really exist except in my brain.”
That started Francesca swearing in a non-stop stream. I had to pick Mia up and run with her to the house. Somehow Francesca’s voice got fainter as we ran.
Inside, I showed her the library. She wasn’t that familiar with the books – apparently she reads her computer screen rather than old yellow pages. But she liked the pictures in some of the nature books. Once she was comfortable, I decided to tell her my final theory. I thought that in her innocence she would be able to tell me the truth.
“He could be one other thing.”
She looked up in anticipation. I stared at the slope of her nose, the way it perfectly divided her fair face into halves, with those piercing light eyes on either side. She was my Cassandra. (I’d liked the story of Cassandra, even if it was Pagan.) My Cassandra had a half-smile on her lips, as if everything I told her was a secret that she enjoyed sharing.
“He could be… Satan.”
“Hear me, please. He could have deceived me, he could be deceiving you now. All of this could be merely a temptation, just as he tempted Christ in the wilderness. He is tempting us not to believe in God. He is trying to turn us into non-believers.”
She sat up straight, pretending to be an adult. Her eyes opened wide in seriousness.
“But haven’t you called on Jesus to save you?”
“I have. Often.”
“And haven’t you asked God to forgive you your sins and make your soul spotless again?”
“I have. Often.”
“God will not abandon you.”
“Even if I’m already in hell?”
“Then how do you explain me?”
I couldn’t. “You got here like that man from the Greek myths who went into the underworld to rescue his love.”
“I wasn’t looking for H-E-double-hockey-sticks. I was looking for heaven. God wouldn’t let me go so far in the wrong direction, would he?”
No, he wouldn’t. Unless you were just another one of his tools. “That’s what I’ve been saying. She’s here to torture you.”
I told Mia to stay there for a minute and went to my room. There I took my pillow and softly inserted my fingers in the hole I’d put there decades ago (centuries?). When I was with Francesca, I was overjoyed one day when she went into a church. I tried with all my might and I was able to make her buy a blessed crucifix that supposedly had a real splinter of the True Cross in it. I made Francesca carry that cross with her always. Then, when I returned here, it came with me. I believe it’s the tool of the true God, who allowed me to bring it here so that I could use it at the right time. Now was the right time. I removed the crucifix from the pillow.
“It’s a piece of wood, so what? What’s that gonna show?”
“I have faith woman, even after all this time, I still have faith in my God. He did not abandon me. Now he has decided my time has come.”
“Or it’s all just another big contraption set up by the Omniscient Asshole to screw you one more time.”
I took my cross back to Mia, holding it behind my back. As I approached her, I could feel my palms sweat. That should be a physical impossibility, I suppose. If I’m really in the afterlife. But my body seems to behave like a real body; except for the fact that it continues to live after taking so much punishment.
Mia smiled up at me as if I were that shopping mall Santa Claus. I smiled back, slowly moved my hand forward. Then I lightly rested the crucifix on her head.
When I lived inside Francesca, I saw one of those vampire movies. When the hero held a cross on the forehead of a woman vampire, her forehead burned and she hissed in pain. No pain from Mia. Just a smile.
“What’s that?” I showed it to her. She touched it hesitantly.
“That proves you are who you say you are, Mia. Not that I ever doubted you.”
I explained how it had a splinter of the true cross. No demon could withstand its touch.
She snatched it from my hand.
“Then I’ll show you that he’s really God!” She ran from the room, up the stairs. I tried to follow, but she was much faster. Why hadn’t I done this already? Why hadn’t I tested it on him? Fear. Fear of God. The Bible says we should feel that fear, but I always thought it meant acquiescence to his might, not real terror. I felt terror when I thought of him. I felt terror now.
What if he’s not God? What if he is a demon or an alien thing? Would this not enrage him? Would he not punish me – or worse, punish Mia?
And if he is God… would it not enrage him as well? If he tortured me for merely a moment of self-doubt, then how would this display madden him? I tried to hurry, but I slipped on a flagstone and went sprawling. By the time I made it to the viewing room, I was panting heavily and felt very weak. I was prepared for the worst – him in all his might floating off the floor, throwing lightning bolts down at us (he’d done that to me once when I didn’t clean his toenails properly).
As I turned the corner into the room, I closed my eyes. I couldn’t look. Then I heard it. Laughter. Not just Mia’s laughter like small bells. But his: great heaving belly laughs of air, as if he were shouting in some foreign, joyful tongue.
I opened my eyes. She sat in his lap, holding the cross to his face. He took the cross from her and put it on his forehead, on his ear, on his nose. She laughed at that. He put the cross on her and tickled her at the same time. She giggled uncontrollably.
He looked at me. “YOU SEE?” He had never spoken in an interrogative to me.
“YOU HAVE NO NEED OF DOUBT NOW.”
“No.” I couldn’t quite grasp it. I’d had such imaginings for centuries upon centuries about his true nature. I had wild fantasies about unmasking him, about him changing shape into some tentacled thing.
Instead he sat there in his clean robe (he cleaned it?) and tickled the little girl. Now I had to wonder why he’d kept me here, why he’d put me through such pain. I couldn’t grasp it. Why would God knowingly cause a faithful follower pain? Why would God knowingly allow evil things to happen? Was God capable of evil? But then, who else created evil but God? I’d thought through these thoughts many times before. Now, with an answer staring back at me with a smile, I couldn’t understand it.
“You silly little fuckhead. It’s his cross. He made it and put it in your room.” I was angry with Francesca. “I bought that. I hid it from him. You remember it was the one time I was able to make you do anything.” “And how did you bring it back with you? Without him knowing? Ridiculous.” She made sense, but I didn’t want to believe her. I still clung to one particle of faith, hoping that he was not omniscient, that I could hide the cross and bring it out to test him. But if that were so, then the cross would have affected him. He would have run away snarling if he were a demon or an alien. So he is God. And he let me bring the cross for that very reason. “No. He’s just powerful, very powerful. He let you bring the cross so he could hurt you more. Let’s hurt him instead.”
“What’s the lady saying to you?” Mia looked over from his lap; worry furrowed her forehead.
“Nothing important. Just nonsense.” And I knelt. I didn’t mean to, I didn’t plan to, but I fell to my knees. And started to weep. “Forgive me for doubting you. I’m sorry, so very sorry to have doubted you.” It was my epiphany: that man’s fate is to suffer and it is also his fate to worship God. God will decide when the suffering ends, not man.
He rose, carefully lifting Mia to the ground. He strode over to me like a mountain gliding across the heavens. He put his hand on my head. It felt like my sins weighing down on me.
“BLESSED IS THE PRODIGAL SON WHO RETURNS TO HIS FATHER.” He lifted his hand and I felt light and joyful. I rose to my feet and looked at him, really looked at him without fear or apprehension of any kind. I wanted to touch him, but knew that it would not be appropriate. Instead I ran to Mia and hugged her. I could smell her little-girl scent, feel her blonde strands on my face like little spider’s feet. I wanted to stay like that, frozen in time.
“You really are a miracle, Mia.”
“That’s what my grandmother always said.”
I looked at him. “You will reunite them? Anyone with this girl’s faith deserves to have her prayers answered.”
He gazed lightly on us both. “I AM WELL PLEASED WITH MY DAUGHTER. SHE MUST HAVE HER PRAYERS ANSWERED.”
Mia screamed with laughter and I picked her up, put her on my shoulders and we danced across the floor. I’d never felt so full, so meaningful and so proud. Somehow I felt I’d had something to do with changing him, with making him realize what he was and what he should be. There was no madness in him, only goodness.
And then the world moved. My legs felt like tiny match-sticks, my body was a feather pushed by a gale. I could not stand. I fell, Mia fell, we both fell.
We did not hit the Egyptian marble. Mia remained a few feet above me, swimming through the air. I rested some inches from the floor.
“YOUR SOUL HAS HEALED BUT YOUR BODY HAS NOT. YOU MUST REST, MY SON. I WILL SEE TO HER.”
He was right. It seemed as if I had not slept for a thousand years. Perhaps because my sleep was always restless, always tempered by fear. My new self needed to sleep.
I crawled to my knees; he lowered me to the floor. “I want to say goodbye to her before she leaves.”
“AND YOU SHALL. BUT I HAVE MUCH TO DISCUSS WITH HER. THE JOURNEY IS NOT AN EASY ONE. I WILL WAKE YOU WHEN IT IS TIME.”
So here I am, back in my bed, my eyelids closing of their own volition. But I had to write these words, let the world know that the world is now right, that God is in his heaven. I can truly rest now.
I was a fool. A fool to trust. A fool to believe. A fool to have faith.
I woke to bright sunlight in my eyes. When I had gone to sleep, he had made it dark. I didn’t know how much time had passed (if time does pass here). But I was nervous. He hadn’t kept his word: He hadn’t awakened me. I jumped out of bed and ran outside. I’d thought that’s where they’d be if she were leaving. Empty – they weren’t there. I ran back inside, calling for Mia. I thought I might have heard her once, as if she were very far away. But I wasn’t sure. What if she’d already left? That would be awful: never to see her again. He must have a reason. There must be some special ritual that I could not be involved with. Perhaps an outsider would spoil it.
“Or he’s fucking with you.” Francesca was still there. I thought once I had become whole that she would have departed. Or been made to depart. “Whole? Never whole. Maybe Hole. A void where your soul was.” “He is no longer mad, he is good.” “He is what He is. He is never-changing.” “What do you mean?” “If he was mad then, then he is mad now. If he was not mad then, then he is not mad now. But he is the same. How can God change?”
I called for him, taking the stairs two at a time. My ankles cracked as I did so – my body had become more fragile. Random thoughts raced through my mind: that everything would go back to the way it was now that she was gone; that I had dreamt her, she’d never existed; that He went with her and I was truly alone for eternity.
Then I heard the sobbing. It made me shiver. I had heard many sounds in this palace: screams, cries, rants, raves. Never sobbing. I ran to the viewing room.
He sat on the divan, cradling her in his arms. She lay on his lap crookedly, like a broken puppet. There was no life in her; she wasn’t Mia any more. Even her blonde hair seemed darker, murkier. Her face had a vacant stare to it, the eyes turned up to the ceiling. Her neck, that small little white bit of softness, was broken. I could see that it had been twisted till it snapped. I thought I felt a breath of wind on my face.
Tears streamed down his cheeks. He’d never cried, never, even after his son left. Even when all those people down below had died in horrible ways. Never one tear. Now he sobbed like an abandoned baby. It took his eyes a moment before they focused on me.
“SHE IS WITH HER GRANDMOTHER NOW. SHE IS HAPPY.” He gulped as if he were afraid to tell me the rest. “IT WAS THE ONLY WAY. ONLY THOSE WHO DIE CAN ENTER THE GATES OF PARADISE. THERE IS NO OTHER PATH.”
His great chest heaved with sobs again and he buried his face in her hair. I wanted to say many things: you’re God, you can break the rules; or just send her back home and make her believe she saw her grandmother; or create something that looks like her grandmother to make her happy – any of those things. But no, he wouldn’t do that because he refuses to deceive. Or because he’s not smart enough. I’ll never know for sure.
I said nothing. Instead I walked forward like a moving statue and took her from his arms. I carried her to the center of the room and laid her on the Babylonian tapestry he’d put there to warm his bare feet. I covered her in it. Later I would bury her somewhere on Romulus. I think she’d like it there.
Then I went back to him, still seated on the divan, still crying, his eyes blood-red, his mouth twisted like a prune. And I hit him with my fists. In his face, in his chest, all over him. I hit him without saying a word. He let me. He did not defend himself at all. I saw bruises and scratches form, red blood well up from cuts in his skin.
Finally he stood. “THE LORD, THE EVERLASTING GOD, CREATOR OF THE WIDE WORLD GROWS NEITHER WEARY NOR FAINT; NO MAN CAN FATHOM HIS UNDERSTANDING.” He raised one hand and gestured at me. I flew across the room and smacked into the wall, my head hitting a bronze Roman candlestick holder. My body felt as if it had been pressed under boulders. He held me there for a while, then let me slip to the floor. He lay down on the divan, rolled over and slept. He’d never slept before. He didn’t need to. He never did grow weary. Now he was sleeping. I crawled from the room.
As I made my way back to my room, coughing and spitting blood, Francesca whispered to me how it could be done. This time I listened. She’d thought about it in great detail. She’d thought of everything.
So I make this final entry. I have the pike. I have knives from the room where Mia ate her last meal. I have a sword from a coat of armor on the wall downstairs. He is sleeping. I saw him bleed. So he has human weaknesses. After all, he created us in his own image.
I will make an end to him. An end to my torment. An end to the world’s torment. An end to his mad rule. Perhaps I can’t kill him. But Francesca thinks I can. She thinks that since he created time and space that he is bound by their rules. I don’t know. But I will try.
Maybe I am lying on a cot in San Severino, my head burning with fever, my body dying from plague. Maybe I am already dead and I created this prison for myself.
But if you are reading this, then some of it must be true . If you are reading this, then either I failed and your world is the same – and He is letting you read this to know his power. Or I succeeded and you have no god any longer. You are free to do as you wish.
Francesca whispers one other possibility: that I failed but he is making you think you are free so that he can torture you all the more.
I don’t know. I just know that the pike feels good in my hand. I can hear him snoring. I think of Francesca, I think of Brother Jeremiah, I think of Mia. I am going to him now.
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