(Continued from part I)
It was that private smile—sometimes tired, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleased, but always incomprehensible—that won. Seth had given up trying to see how his roommate could find amusement in random situations, even in their most vicious arguments. He fantasized occasionally about punching that smile, making it bleed, making it stop. But it seemed that if he did that, the smile would somehow have won again. So he went to the Journalism building, filled out a form, and decided that the next best thing would be to prove Isaac wrong. That ought to be easy enough.
As far as that goal was concerned, next Monday began auspiciously. Seth’s alarm woke him at four o’clock with the most obnoxious squealing he had ever heard. The air was cold and damp even before he stepped outside. His body felt heavy. He couldn’t get rid of an odd taste in his mouth. The darkness was disquieting. The “truck” was a golf cart with a flatbed attachment on the back, and cleaning up yesterday’s papers was an irritating chore. By the third drop, he was amusing himself with scenarios in which he did bodily harm to Isaac while explaining why this was lame.
Finally, though, he finished. It had taken him twenty minutes longer than predicted. Even if experience would cut the time, this was another point for his side. Seth drove back to the Journalism building, parked the truck, tossed the old papers into the recycling bin, and began his homeward trudge. He was tired enough to entertain the possibility of returning to his cold bed, hoping for another hour or two of sleep before he had to go to class. Or maybe he would just sleep in.
On the way, he worked over his gripe. “This ‘perfect job’ is the most retarded thing since toilet-scrubbing. In fact, I’d rather scrub toilets. They don’t leave ink and shit all over your hands. See this on my palm? That’s the headline. I swear those bundles will break my back. And this has got to be the worst time to be prancing around outdoors. Only freaks and crack-heads are out this early—”
His soliloquy was cut short when he turned a corner and almost stepped on a young woman crouched on the sidewalk. She seemed familiar, but he stopped and stared for a few moments before he recognized the girl from the park bench that evening a few weeks before. Her gaze was unfocused and her face soft, giving her demeanor a sort of remorseless gentleness that Seth found unsettling. She was ruffling and raking one of the campus’ ornamental hedges with her fingers as if combing it. Slowly, her arms rose and fell, swept back and forth, moved in and out among the twigs. The motion of her fingertips was startlingly rapid.
“What are you doing?”
She answered without pausing or looking up. “I am counting the leaves.”
He stopped. The reply had been completely deadpan. Was she joking? Was she insane? Was she fantastically bored? He glanced around, but there was nobody else in sight. He thought for a moment about making a sarcastic remark, but nothing came to mind. He considered just nodding and walking away, but that seemed insufficient, and he would never be able to bring himself to talk to her again. After an uncomfortable pause, he shifted his weight and asked “Why?”
Still no response other than her soft voice: “I… the bush would forget itself and die.”
She shifted to the side and continued her counting in a new section of the hedge. “I do not know the precise channels at work.”
“That’s crazy. What kind of person goes around counting leaves at half past five in the morning?”
It was so matter-of-fact that she might as well have said “A professional leaf-counter, duh,” and rolled her eyes. As it was, Seth bobbed his head back and blinked. She had shifted again by the time he came up with a response. “You’re shitting me.”
“No.” She looked at him now, hands momentarily still. “That is not how I work. I grew the first man and woman of my tribe from the second budding of my sacred bush. I once knew a monkey-god who truly shat his people out, but in the end they were nothing more than fertilizer.”
This was one of the most interesting, if bizarre, conversations Seth had ever had. With a shrug, he decided to play along and see where it went. “What happened to them?”
“Oh, he despoiled the fruits of the grove where I lived.” She frowned, then smiled brilliantly. Seth’s entire skin prickled in a moment of terror. “On the third night after, my tribe attacked his in the dark of the moon, killed his warriors and priests, took his women and children as slaves, razed his town, broke his altars, and killed the sacred monkey who channeled his commands. It was the most exhilarating night of my life.”
“Cool!” Seth nodded. She had seemed kind of weird, but anybody who could BS so well this early was at least fun to listen to. It was almost worth waking up for in the small hours of the morning. “So, did you do that kind of thing often?”
“I was not much of a conqueror, no. As an agricultural deity, I was mostly occupied with giving my people a good harvest each year. At one time, I was able to take advantage of favorable circumstances to achieve jurisdiction over all plant life, but only a century later my tribe merged with others and I became a member of a pantheon. My cousin directed our warriors thereafter.”
“Yeah, mergers suck. What happened after that?”
“That which happened to all of us. We were what modern folklorists might call continental Celtic deities. Our faces were blurred by time and by the blending of worship among the peoples of central and southern Europe. Then the Christians moved out of Rome and destroyed everything.” Her eyes narrowed. “My cousin died along with the last descendants of his people, a century ago, in the Great War. Others of my family may have survived, but I lost contact with them ages ago.”
“That’s too bad.” Seth began to wonder how much time she had spent on this story. If it was made up on the spot, she was good, but maybe a little too studious for his taste. If she was reusing it from an earlier conversation… well, that was just weird. “Right. So, did you ever meet Jesus?”
“I never encountered this Yesu because my demesne was in Europe rather than the Middle-East. I never met the Hebrew God because it has never manifested where I could encounter it. Nor have I met the Moslem deity, for the same reason.” She shook her head thoughtfully, then brightened. “But their followings are large enough already. Will you join my tribe?”
“Sure, why not?” Seth shrugged, trying and failing to make his voice sound casual.
She regarded him sadly, in a way reminiscent of one of Isaac’s expressions. She sighed. “I have forgotten how perfunctory the people of this age are. It is a serious thing to join such a small tribe as mine is become.”
“Yeah, well, corporate religion’s for losers. And I must be psycho already, since I’m getting up at the butt-crack of dawn. How about you tell me about it?”
“You do not seem to fully grasp the significance. Shall I show you my sacred bush?”
He snickered. “Yeah, show me your bush. Go on.”
He was mildly put off when she held out a small potted evergreen. It looked like an unusually full bonsai of sorts, with dark green needles and waxy red berries. It was similar in appearance to the hedge she had been combing through, so he supposed that he had simply not noticed it earlier. The pot was well crafted, with beautiful geometric patterns that seemed to merge with the plant’s roots and stem. Its leaves gave off a faint but pleasant scent.
“Um… nice. What next?”
She stepped forward and turned the pot to present a particularly berry-rich branch. “You must eat of the fruit. If you then declare yourself a follower of Thea Eibe, I will become your patron and use my powers to enrich your life as best I can. I admit freely that this is no significant boon, as you are not a farmer. You will be instructed in my doctrines and cultic practices as becomes necessary. If you bring me other worshippers, my domain will expand and so—”
“Whoa, rewind.” Seth pointed at the plant. “You want me to eat one of those?”
“Three would be better. It is a noted magical number.”
“Well, thanks, I’d really love to, but no thanks.” Half turning, he held up a hand barrier-like. “I’d love to help you, Thea, but I’m not that down with rabbit food. Bird food. I mean, aren’t those poisonous? Even if I was that hungry, the vending machines have better stuff.”
He turned the rest of the way and headed for the dorms. “Well, catch you around. Good luck with your cult there.”
As he left, she spoke again as if to herself. Her voice was surprisingly bitter. “I suppose it was to be expected. We shall simply have to find another way to live.”
He looked back. She was walking the other way, apparently talking to the potted plant.
A few days later Isaac was walking home from the library, lost in thought, when he encountered Thea. She was lying on a bench, resting her head on one hand and staring up into the sky. He was about to pass by when he recognized her and stopped.
“Hey, you’re in my Hebrew class, right? What was the workbook assignment due next Monday?”
She didn’t even blink.
He moved closer and waved for attention. “Um, hello?”
Her gaze slowly shifted from the first early stars to his face. “Pages forty-seven and -eight,” she murmured.
“Thanks. Um, are you alright?”
“No.” Thea sat up. “I find myself confronted by an existential dilemma.”
Setting his books down, Isaac sat a little apart on the bench and turned to face her. “Existential, huh? Do you want to talk about it?”
“Perhaps….” They were silent for a while. Then, with a sigh, Thea glanced back up at the sky. “I do not understand people. I am attending school in an attempt to learn more about this new world, but there is too much conflicting information. Worse, the world does not seem to care about my presence in it.
“I was counting the leaves of a bush two days ago. I was interrupted. I never gave it its name. Yet the bush has not yet forgotten itself and died. In the old times, I could determine the lifespan of any plant by naming it, and my servitor spirits counted the parts of each one for me four times each year. I could grow crops more fruitful than Ceres’. Yet now I wonder whether my influence could bend a single blade of grass.”
Isaac was fighting to keep his eyebrows from rising mock-quizzically. However, he managed to nod his understanding with appropriate gravity. “All you need to do is step on it, if you want to bend grass—um, go on.”
“I… am worried about what will happen. Little gods like me can be killed. But we have no souls as humans do. We have energy. If I am destroyed, what was once ‘me’ will be reabsorbed into the world and lost forever. That… that frightens me.”
“You could convert to some other religion,” Isaac offered with a smile. “Hinduism or Buddhism would be good; it’s their goal to become one with the universal Atman, or something.” He found himself the object of intense scrutiny on her part. “What? Are you ok there?”
“You are not taking my words seriously.” She dropped her gaze. “It is impossible to talk to any of you, when everything I say and do and be is seen as a joke. Why do you laugh? Why laugh at me?” Her voice acquired a certain steely quality for a moment, so that Isaac moved back in surprise.
He shrugged, recovering. “Anything so unusual as a god walking around on a college campus, taking classes and otherwise acting like a normal person, is kind of extreme. And extremities are always met with skepticism, especially in college. Well, except our own extremes. We take those for granted.” He grinned. “In this case, what you say sure sounds like a couple jokes I’ve heard. Heck, it sounds like some of the stories I’ve told, even.”
Her voice resumed its earlier tone. “You believe me, though.”
“No.” He made a negating hand gesture. “If I did believe you, I’d have to kill you. Therefore, since killing you would be a bad thing, I don’t. Of course I’m not going to take you seriously.”
“Then we have nothing more to discuss.” Thea startled Isaac by standing suddenly and placing a small potted yew, which he had not noticed previously, on the bench. She startled him again by speaking to it: “You will guard me here.” She walked away into the evening.
“Well.” Isaac stood as well. He looked down at the plant. He looked up at Thea’s back, held straight by a self-aware, stoic pride. He looked back down at the plant. “So, what, do you bite? Do your little poisonous leaves stab me? Nu?”
It didn’t answer.
He shrugged again, shouldered his backpack, and went in the other direction, toward home.
Isaac entered their room just as Seth was getting into bed. “Oh, I’m sorry. Just let me dump this and grab my stuff, and I’ll go away and study.”
“You’d better accommodate. You’re the one who talked me into this moronic job in the first place! Do you have any idea how much scheduling trouble it gives me?”
“Some, yeah. Your job defines the times when I can’t use my desk. Which is probably all the thanks I’ll get for recommending it.”
“You know what?” Gesturing expansively, Seth launched into a long-rehearsed harangue. “My alarm clock is analog, right? So when I set it for four, it also goes off at four in the afternoon. And I set it to twelve for Saturday and Sunday because weekends are the only times I can sleep until noon, but of course that means it goes off at midnight and wakes me up! You should at least remind me Sunday night to reset it so I can sleep all the way through to Monday morning.”
“And you’re so lucky I can bring my music with me. Otherwise I’d start talking to things, or counting them, or whatever else it is psycho people do.”
“Oh, you’ve met Thea?”
That stopped Seth for a moment. Then he said, “Yeah. What do you think of her?”
Isaac shrugged as he unplugged his laptop and put it into his backpack. “Well, she seems nice, mostly. Smart. Usually doesn’t say much. She came to the study group for my Hebrew class a couple of times. Sort of pretty in an understated way, if you go for that sort of thing.”
“She’s a fruit loop, if you go for that sort of thing! She has a pet plant.”
“I know. It is to say: ‘the last time I met her, I met yew.’ Heh!” Isaac left quickly.
“What? …‘God, I just kill myself, I’m so funny!’” Seth mocked Isaac’s voice, then muttered “Or somebody will, if he keeps that up.”
The next evening, Seth was woken at eleven by a gentle but persistent rapping at the door. He looked at his bedside clock. “One hour of sleep. Great.” If Isaac had forgotten his keys again, Seth was about to hurt him badly.
The knocking continued. Slow. Persistent. Aggravating. It was exactly Isaac’s sort of thing. Seth stalked over to the door and flung it open. “Do you—!”
Thea stopped with her hand in mid-knock.
She opened her mouth to speak, but was cut off as Seth slammed the door and scrambled to his dresser. Red-faced, he tugged on a pair of pants to the accompaniment of a flow of under-the-breath profanity, hesitated, then threw on a shirt as well. He stepped into the bathroom and finger-combed his hair hurriedly before flipping the room light on and reopening the door.
“Sorry about that… what do you want? I need to sleep early to make my morning job.”
Thea blinked. “I am sorry to have interrupted your sleep. Is Isaac in?”
Seth’s eyes did subtle things while the rest of his face lost all overt signs of emotion. “He’s at work. He spends like four hours a day on average, at least, at this place a few miles out in the country. It’s some sort of military program that pays for his school. Sometimes they take so long, he crashes there overnight.”
She smiled. “In the country? Yes, it is pleasant to live in a small town like this. The university provides variety lacking in most villages, but nature is close at hand.”
“…Right. Do you want to leave a message?”
“No, I would rather speak with him in person. I….” Her voice faded into unintelligibility.
“I wish to convert to Judaism. I believe that Isaac is Jewish?”
“Yeah, he is.” Seth shook his head as if to clear the sleep out. “He wasn’t all into it until after coming to school, but yeah. But why would you want to? I mean, come on! Jewish?”
“The eastern religions offer nothing more than that which I most fear,” she began. Then Seth stepped back as something, that on another person he would have called anger, showed through her calm exterior despite a lack of change in her voice. “And the Yesu has been my sworn enemy ever since his people overran mine, and burned and salted my grove. It is because of him that all that remains to me is the eldest bush. He will never be my lord. Nor will I join a tribe that accepts him as even a prophet, as the Moslems do. And Ahura Mazda is lost.”
“I see.” He flashed a weak smile and began inching the door shut. “Well, I’m sure it can wait until next time you see him around. Or you could talk to, ah, a rabbi. Or something. Have a nice night now. Good night.” He closed the door in her face. “Weird.”
Walking to the sink, he splashed water on his face and made an uncomprehending gesture at the mirror. “Weird.”
He shut off the light and closed the bathroom door. He undressed, throwing his clothing onto the chair by his desk. He turned off the room light. He lay down in bed. “Weird.” He closed his eyes. Half an hour later, they reopened. “Dammit!”
With only four hours of sleep, his mood the next morning was dark. He let the alarm shriek through its full cycle, but it turned out that Isaac had slept off-campus again, so the gesture fell flat.
(Continued in part III)