The old man and the gods
He put down his newspaper and took a long drag from his cigarette. No rain coming in this week's forecast; no rain in the last 6 weeks either. It seems like the long drought would never end. Just this week, he had lost three cattle and twelve sheep. He took another drag and contemplated leaving this place. But how could he leave? --to leave would mean to abandon his dreams, his goals, and his mortgage. Not that his home would be worth keeping in this falling market, but it was his home --and his promise of a better life for his wife and unborn child.
The housing market was declining significantly. The only thing scarcer than food was jobs. Who wants to move to a land where starvation was the most likely outcome? Who starts a business in this economy? Abandoned fields and homes were all around. Only a crazy person would bear a child in this place.
He picked up the newspaper again, trying not to think of how he will feed his child in the next few weeks. The news this week revolved around the governor. The governor had long since trucked in water from the outlying villages, but even that was running dry. They had tried conservation and restrictions. The people had prayed, fasted, and wept; still there was no rain.
A local priest had called for another human sacrifice. There had been three reported in the local news recently, and, this time, the governor agreed -- a serious departure from his previous rhetoric, especially his campaign rhetoric. Not that a governor abandoning their campaign rhetoric was especially big news these days.
The old man attempted to take another draw, but noticed that he his cigarette had gone out in the midst of his financial analysis. Who understands the gods? He thought as he lit the stick again. Perhaps, they had missed some detail, or the sacrifice was given to the wrong god, or that some god that the priests did not even know about was the one holding back the rain. Perhaps, they had the right god but he simply wanted more.
The article in the newspaper was about the governor's position change on religion. Despite the reversal, the old man felt like he understood the governor; they were from the same generation. Back in both of their childhoods, sacrifices were a common occurrence. When there was another drought, a child from the old man's very village was selected to be sacrificed to appease the gods and end the drought.
Although the governor had grown up elsewhere, that event had become publicized by the national media, as all the proof one needed to know that sacrifices appease the gods (not that there were not other proofs --there were many -- but this was the most recent and the most local, and, thus, the most on people's minds). The governor referenced that event, stated that something must be done, and that they had exhausted everything humanly possible. He seemed almost apologetic, as if he was trying to saying: What other choice had they?
The old man thought of the mixture of intense grief at the loss of their daughter and the family's pride that she had saved their people when the drought ended. It was a successful sacrifice in that it brought the rain, but it was a sacrifice nonetheless.
The old man hated the gods for wanting this, hated them for being cruel, hated them insomuch as even existing at all, but in the end, he acknowledged the reality of the world around him: the gods must not be forgotten and they must be obeyed. They were not to be trifled with.
He hated them as intensely as he sometimes wished he had been chosen instead of that young girl in his village. To be fondly remembered was the only immortality he could hope for, and who has been remembered more fondly than her? His desires were conflicted between wanting to live, not wanting her to die, and wanting a good name, mixed together with the intense worry and feelings of inadequacy of not being able to provide for his wife and soon to be born son. Besides he was exhausted of dealing with the economic situation--actually with dealing with everything -- and death seemed like as good a way as any to be done with the struggling. Not that he wanted to die -- well, not most of the time, at least. He closed his eyes, put out his cigarette, and leaned back in his recliner. Sleep was as good as, and possible better, than death sometimes.
For a messenger of a god, he was rather unremarkable, memorable only in that he was just ugly enough to make you want to look away, but not so ugly as to make him difficult to ignore. He would have been quickly forgotten, if not for the words that he said, "I will make you into a great nation that will heal all nations. Leave now and go to the land that I have prepared for you and your innumerous descendants."
He had had the dream again. The reminder of why he was brought here. He shifts in his recliner, turns on the television, and tries not to think of all the issues suffocating his life or about the potential fulfillment of the promise.
A game show host is preparing two teams for an obstacle course filled with paint, various food products in large amounts, spinning apparatuses, and treadmills.
A man slips and falls. The crowd cheers.
For some reason, the old man felt a wave of anger at the crowd for the way they cheered. Intense but brief, he changed the channel. It wasn't a good time for the promise to be fulfilled. They were plagued by debt; mortgaged out their ears, and without a decent rain to fuel their herds and drench their fields, soon, they too would be starving.
He flips the channel to a man shouting about the benefits of some kitchen appliance that he can get for only four installments of whatever.
Even if it did rain soon, he would probably still lose most of his animals. His investments were worthless. He was too old to find a job, his 401(k) was empty, and his farm teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Worst of all, his marriage is not what it once was, if you could call it a marriage at all. It's technically an open relationship at this point; they both having slept with someone else, essentially at the other's request.
He changes the channel again, not even paying attention to what it was before and gets up and pours himself another cup of coffee. The light from the television pulsates and weaves throughout the room. A commercial comes on, making only slightly veiled references to a promising, youthful return to a sexual experience for men with ED. He tries to think about something else.
He fails as he grooms his pollutant.
His wife had had a great life back home; they both did. A big home with a two car garage, an esteemed role in the country club, a nice job with good benefits, good credit with the community bank. Instead of letting her have all that, he drags her thousands of miles from her home, to a land flowing with ilk and ornery warlords.
That's really where all the problems started. As soon as he moved, the old man, thinking a local gang leader would kill him to take his wife, tried to pass her off as his sister. And through a complicated series of events, his failure to expose his lie resulted in his wife being taken into another man's harem.
He tries not to think of what this has done to his marriage --his reputation -- or his wife.
He had come here because he was to become the father of a great nation, but the gynecologist had said that his wife couldn't even have children, the lining of her uterus having been damaged by HPV. Neither of them told the gynecologist of their encounters with the gang, but the old man was plagued by his awareness that he had caused this to happen to her, and the correct suspicion that she was aware of it as well.
Rumors of her sexual promiscuity and sexually transmitted disease circled around their neighborhood like the vultures buying up the land that could no longer support its people. Some people began murmuring that they were only able to hold onto their farm longer than their neighbors because of the money the old man had gotten for letting the gang leader (or in some forms of the tale, the whole gang) have sex with his wife.
The rumor was true.
Or at least one version of it, but the old man did know which one
-- and didn't want to know.
24 years had passed since the promise.
Still she was barren.
Every so often an author comes by and speaks of depression, boredom, loss, and pain adorned in poetic language, like a well dressed corpse. They say that the book of Ecclesiastes is the classical expression of such things, but the old man knew that that book was far too descriptive to be true. Its words are too exciting and creative to be written while being written in loss. True depression and purposelessness can only write a sentence -- not even a paragraph, much less a book. And one sentence was all that one could say about their life in those days. It takes a moment to read the four words; 24 years for the old man and his wife to live them.
This was all they had, all they could say; all they knew.
All that could be said.
All that was.
And still she was barren.
This god had promised that they would birth a nation. But they did not even have a single child in 24 years. Alas, the gods like playing with the minds and hearts of men.
On the 19th year of the promise being unfulfilled, the old man's nephew's farm was attacked by bandits who had taken over a nearby town, and he was kidnapped.
The old man succeeded in killing the bandits and securing his nephew. After the battle had ended, then the god declared: "I am your shield and your great reward."
The old man was filled with bitterness and responded: "What can you give me since I remain childless?" Yes, this god had finally kept a promise. A promise of protection that had come after the battle had been won. The only promise he had given in advance was yet unfilled, and the old man could barely keep silent, as the god repeated the promise of a child yet again.
The god demanded that the old man return the plunders of his war to get his nephew back. "These bandits must not be allowed to declare that they have made you rich. You must take an oath to not keep any of the items which they have stolen."
So, the old man returned the spoils of the battle.
Still she was barren.
The whole time, she was plagued with insecurities and felt, as women often do in her situation, rejected, depressed, and punished, for not being able to bear a child. They tried envitro fertilization, but that was unsuccessful -- and expensive. Deciding to mortgage the house and farm to pay for it came to be a deeply regretted decision. She had tried to let him sire a son with a surrogate mother -- the old fashioned way, but that proved to bring out even more of the feelings of rejection and betrayal, as well as a new one -- jealousy.
The surrogate mother's womb swelled as quickly as hatred filled the old woman heart.
For so long the old man had longed for her to say something for the way he had traded her body for his safety, some insult, some outburst. Something. Anything. He knew he deserved it, and he felt like her silence was more damming than any statement.
He was wrong.
He thought back to the day -- that damn day -- when she finally spoke. She had just slapped the mother of his child -- he dared not ask why, as she turned her attention, not to mother of his child, but to the old man.
"You are responsible for everything that has happened to me!" She shrieked at the old man. "I let this woman into your arms and now that she is pregnant, she despises me. May God, himself, judge you for what you have done to me!"
She chased the woman and her son out.
He let her do it, without even a whimper. He quietly tried to give them some meager supplies for the journey, but he did not have much to give. He knew he didn't have the relational currency to keep the marriage together and oppose her, not that he even wanted the symbol of his failure around. And, quite frankly, they were just two more mouths to feed.
Her words seared upon his mind. This the old man knew she felt the way she did, but, like many men, he would not, or more accurately felt like he could not, ever speak to her about these things.
Depression and anxiety filled him for years, as knowing that his cowardice gave his wife a sexually transmitted disease and thinking that very cowardice would cost him his marriage and his promise. He tried not to think about the lost promise, or about what he had allowed to happen to his wife in another man's bedchambers. The crushing defeat that was his life, so overwhelmed, depressed and stressed him, that he found it difficult to maintain an erection any more. He felt like a failure of a man, a heap of humanity.
They had always been connected by the promise -- a promise unfulfilled. They were now also connected by their shame.
He turns the channel of the television again. Unaware that today will be the day she will bear his son. Yes, she was as pregnant as their silence for all those years, but she was not due for two more weeks. The old man's cell phone rings and startles him. Not just because he was deep in thought, but because honestly, with this economy, and the fact that the cell towers had been poorly maintained, the phone often did not work. He turned off the TV and answered the call.
"The baby is coming." It was his wife. He got up from his lounge chain, now fully awake. She had been out shopping for children's clothes at the mall; or more accurately pretending to shop, as she knew she could not afford anything.
"Now." She says.
"Today?" and realized before he had finished asking that the question was useless. "Call an ambulance; I will meet you at the hospit..." The call dropped. "Figures," the old man says, as he rushes to start his car.
He prays that it will start, unsure which god it is he is intending to be addressing.
After several hours in the OR, the baby finally comes. They will be naming him "Laughter," they tell the attending nurse, who gives them a strange look. It's certainly not a popular name this year, and not in either of their family trees. They were accustomed to strange looks by now.
Strange as it was, they were happy to be alive at all after the second meeting with the messengers. They were in their eighties when the messengers had come the second time, and claimed that they would have a child. A woman in her eighties giving birth? Much less a woman with a damaged uterus, from a sexually transmitted disease acquired from being bought and sold like an animal to guarantee her husband's safety? And to be impregnated by a man with erectile dysfunction, caused by a widening depression?
She said something about the likelihood of a baby being born in a nursing home and medicare picking up the tab. They both began to laugh. They laughed because it was good to share in a moment of happiness and unity, even if it was fleeting and caused by mutual disbelief. And for a moment they stopped, realizing that they laughed mostly because they had run out of tears, and that this laughter shared much in common with their cries, having come from the same place in their heart. But then, they laughed again, more uncontrollably this time. The laughed not as one who had found anything funny, but the desperate laughter of two people who knew they had no chance of living beyond the encounter with a god they had just mocked. The laughed the laughter of the condemned, and they continued to laugh because if you are going to be killed for laughing, you might as well laugh all the way to the grave.
The old man's wife fell over and her blouse got muddy. Tears came to both their eyes. After a few moments of expected to die and not dying, the joke lost it appeal. Nervous laughter matured into full grown fear. The old woman realized in horror that she would die in a muddy dress.
The god said, this time avoiding a messenger altogether, "Why do you laugh? Is there anything too hard for me? By this time next year you will have a son."
One of them haphazardly tried to say it was not them laughing; it was the live audience of the sitcom playing on the television at the time. Neither thought it was a good defense, and to this day they playfully argue about who it was that first stammered that statement. They both expected to be killed, because mocking a god was not exactly the way to a long life.
But this god did not kill them. Instead, he asks them to name the child "Laughter." Neither the old man nor his wife understood why, and he very much perplexed them.
What type of god was this, who when you mock him, joins in on the joke? What god asks you to name your child after the jest you made at his expense?
This was indeed a strange, strange god, the old man thought. But he is a god, and like all gods he will punish us somehow for this.
A few years passed from the day he sat reflecting on his sofa and his life, but the old man couldn't get the fear from his head. His child's very name had spoiled in his mouth. It reminded him no more of the joy of the child's coming birth, and instead just of his disbelief and assured punishment. To even say his name was to acknowledge his fears that that this god would one day come back to have the last laugh. His wife was right, god would judge him. That god would turn that promise into a curse.
No god would put up with what the old man had done.
Like a self-fulfilling prophesy, the old man's fears were realized when at last the god spoke.
"Go sacrifice your son." Haunting were the words. The old man knew he deserved this, for what he had done to his wife, for the lies he had told, the coward he had become, and most of all, the way he had laughed at a god.
He grieved for a moment, but was also strangely relieved: the torture was over.
Despite the relief, he was not cruel. He had just been living with the awful truth that there would be a reckoning. The gods give and the gods take away. The torture was getting to know his son; the torture was loving the person who was made simply to be taken. The torture was knowing in advance.
"Burn him alive on the top of the mountain."
The old man already knew what to do; he needed no more instructions and did not receive any. Besides the common occurrences of sacrifices in his hometown, about a year ago, a virgin girl was slain upon that very mountain to appease some god. He had long since forgotten the exact reason -- and the exact god. These things had grown more common in his new home, as a new governor had been elected, and he was more religious.
He laced his hiking boots and grabbed his lighter, some gasoline, and his skinning knife. It would be a painless death from behind. He would not bear to look in his boy's eyes. He will not tell his wife. He will say the boy has gone missing -- perhaps an animal had attacked him?
He was smoking again on the way up, coughing in the thin air. He had quit for a time, but what does the surgeon general's warning matter? He didn't care if he cut his life short; he didn't care if he got cancer.
He was cancer.
He devoured his life and the lives of the people around him.
He took another puff, and thought more about the last time this god had spoken.
After he and his wife had laughed at the gods promise, this god asked "Shall I hide from you what I am about to do?" and then repeated the promise again.
This god had repeated the promise many times, always saying that the old man was righteous for having believed it.
But this time no such claim of the old man's righteousness was included.
The god continued: "The outcry against your wealthy neighbors in Sodom is so great that I will go down myself and see if they are as evil as the outcry that has reached me. I have heard, that they themselves have plenty to eat, yet next door their neighbors starve, that they oppress the poor, turn a blind eye to the needy, and their hearts are filled with evil intentions. If this is so, I will know when I get there."
You need to go down there to see if they are evil? They kidnapped my family. Where the hell were you then? The old man thought of the spoils he was required to refuse when he attacked the bandits from Sodom, he could certainly use them now.
The god lingered, as if to see what the old man would say.
He already had laughed at this god, what did it matter what he said now? When this god would strike down his neighbors, why would he stop there, if he's out to destroy the unrighteous? This god's omission made it clear that the old man was no longer counted among them.
"Far be it from you to do such a thing -- to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating them both alike. Surely, this is nothing like you. You're the judge of all the earth, but will you do what's right?" the old man continued, surprising himself with his sarcasm.
"What if there are a few righteous men there?"
The god promised he would not destroy the righteous with the wicked. But the promises fell on the old man's dead ears. He was busy in thought: What promises you give you fail to keep. What does your word matter? You promise and I believe, but you do not deliver. And when I raise my voice at the failed promise, you will claim some defect in my righteousness for not believing you. But it's been 24 years and you haven't done a thing. My fate will be the same as my neighbors -- or worse.
Worse it was.
He could hardly hold a breath now; he felt like he was being smothered, but, still, he wanted more.
Choking, he wished for something stronger, something to take away the pain. He longed to be the one who was to be killed in the place of his son, to have already been killed in the flames, but surely the god would take both his son and his wife if he was rebellious. This god who called fire from the sky.
He had very little firsthand knowledge about the day the fire fell from the sky and consumed the men who kidnapped his nephew. There were a few facts of which the old man was aware, but the rest came down to neighborhood gossip and rumors. Sadly, as in the old man's life had shown, many times these rumors had a great deal of truth in them.
The old man knew only that the messengers of the god left the old man and went to his nephew who was living in that town -- a fact which always confused the old man -- why settle down in the town inhabited by your kidnappers? The only other detail of which the old man was aware was what obvious to everyone: these messengers stayed a night in the town, and then the city went up in flames.
There were rumors that the men of the town tried to attack and rape the messengers and his nephew, and when they did, that his nephew offered to give up his daughters to save his neck and his guests.
The old man didn't know what to believe, surely the rumor about his nephew bore too much resemblance to his own story to be true, but when his nephew's daughters showed up pregnant and without husbands, the question did not seem to matter anymore. By all accounts it appeared to be true. His nephew never spoke of why they were pregnant.
Silence, apparently like cowardice, seemed to run in the family.
His cancer was spreading.
He slips a little on the gravel mountain and imagines he hears the crowd cheering. He thinks about taking his own life after his son's, as he takes out his blade from its sheath and steps behind his boy.
The knife glints in the moonlight.
The moonlight was shattered as fire poured from the sky like a pillar of flame. Daylight was jealous, as the flames lit up the sky. In an instant, the entire town was consumed.
To kill was to be like this god, the old man thought. He is the god of the flame.
The old man lights another cigarette, being careful to keep his ash from the reaches of his gasoline. He takes his final drag, the largest of his life.
He draws the knife back and moves to strike.
He breathes smoke.
Smoke rose from the ashes of a town smoldered -- proof to the old man of the anger of a god. Watching the smoke and embers of the town, the old man realized that for whatever reason this god had for these men to not be able to say that they had made the old man rich, wasn't valid.
It wasn't about what they could claim; they were dead anyway. This god did not want him to be able to say that he got rich from liberating his nephew from thieves. This god wanted him to be forced to be reminded of selling his wife to another man.
No, the old man was convinced: this god wants me to suffer -- to be ever reminded of my wife and my failure.
He closes his eyes and plunges his knife forward, ripping tendons, and scoring flesh. He hits bone, but does not quit.
He completes his cut.
At the same time, he knocked backwards to the ground and weeping.
A mess of a man,
With a massive sore of a belly,
Overcome with grief,
Feeling like he had been hit by a truck.
Startled and gasping for air.
The weight of the body upon his chest,
kicking to save a life already lost.
Blinded by his tears and the burning of his eyes from the smoke just exhaled; blood splatter from the wound he had made filled the old man's mouth and eyes. The old man felt the blood of his child pour onto his chest, soaking his shirt.
The lifeless body spasms one last time.
The old man turns his head and wretches.
He feels a great pain in his shoulder, expects to find the knife to be lodged there, and wonders how it happened that way.
He tries to wipe the blood from his eyes, still unable to see.
And the boy laughs.
The old man, still straining to see, glimpses the boots of his son, moving a few feet from him. All at once, he realizes that whatever is upon his is much too large to be his son, that the knife is still in his hand above his chest embedded in fur, and that the injury to his shoulder was from the teeth of some beast.
The boy laughs at his father's misfortune to have been jumped on by a cougar. He laughs because his father had been so prepared with his knife ready and had mastered the beast so quickly.
He laughs because the danger is gone.
And he laughs because he hears someone else laughing as well, though the boy does not know who.
"Stay your blade." comes the voice of the one who laughed with the old man's son. "Do no harm to your son. I do not delight in sacrifices, but prepare the cougar if wish -- if only for your guilt. I am who I am not who you think I am. I come to bless, not to curse."
For so long the two were caught between a language barrier: the language of guilt. So the God who laughs provided a language for the old man to understand: something to slay and punish for the wrongs which the old man could not forgive himself, but of which had long been forgiven. The God who laughs found the words He could use to speak the language the old man understood.
All at once, the old man felt relief like the crashing of a great wave fall upon him, overcome by a god --The Only God -- who did not want the blood of a child. The God who did not need a sacrifice for Himself, this God provided a substitute and a sacrifice for the man.
The old man lay there bleeding, but, now, also bleed for.
Realize he was in the midst of a new type of god:
a God who demonstrates what could not be understood without a demonstration,
the God who laughed,
the God so unlike what he had thought,
The old man laughed.