Lamentations of the Gods

By Brian Ames

Our first encounter with worshippers constituted only a brief glimpse across the water valley. We were hunting great tawny cats, and had followed a pair through the forest, down the side of the valley. As we approached the stream at its base, we spied them from a promontory.

"Behold," one of our younger brothers whispered. "Are they worshippers?"

There had been rumors of them around the consecrated fire for many moon cycles. Some of the stories possessed substance-- actual eyewitness accounts of sightings, as well as interactions. They came to be known as "worshippers," for by their actions we created an interpretation that they sought to plead with us, to perform acts of penitence, to raise the sphere of praise, to thus glorify our deity. In some instances, we birthed this understanding: their wish was to offer themselves up in propitiation. The number of accounts of them accelerated, as if they rose spuriously with forest vapors.

We saw the group some time later from a closer viewpoint. We were still secreted in foliage and silence. There were four, mostly hairless, all with coats of bright white. They wore strange, multicolored skins. Of confusing construct, they seemed to have fur only atop their heads or surrounding their faces. We marveled at their freakishness: "How they must glow in the darkness!" one of our uncles said later, laughing. We did not appreciate that he prophesied.

They appeared to be establishing an encampment. Their labors seemed purposeful as they cracked limbs and cleared duff from the soil floor. Without pausing to observe any sort of rite or pay homage, one squatted and struck a fire by smashing rocks together, the spark leaping into flame from dry moss. Neither did the impertinent firestarter make any attempt to properly vector the ensuing smoke, so that within minutes the valley was choked with it. Its fragrance wafted in an uncontrolled, unholy manner, and offended us. The garishness of it, the trespass! We watched stone-faced, and had to remind ourselves that this--the great gulf between their evil practices and ours--comprised the reasons for their presence here in the forest. They had come as seekers, and were well acquainted with their own depravity. Still, during the course of ensuing days we had to repeatedly bring into being an understanding among ourselves of this. So deep, alien and contrary to circularity were their offenses.

On the second day, we saw another of the worshippers put a boar to sleep. We had returned the night prior, chattering about their oddness and brazenness, their senseless violations. The fire and smoke had been strange and nerve-jangling in themselves. But the erection of what appeared to be shelters directly in contact with the dirt of the forest, as well as the uncontrolled noise of their utterances--often shrieking and piling into the vocalizations of each other--were offenses too profound to be grasped in a single viewing. The worshippers were stunning in their disregard for righteousness. We made a debate of the enormity of this all evening around a properly sanctified fire, with the smoke carefully conveyed from us by the shape of the canopy above. The following morning a smaller group of us returned to the outcrop to ascertain their preparations. We supposed a detailed surveillance of their morning habits would tell us the time and manner in which they would make an approach of proper humility. A longer look, which we now intended to take, would help us author an accommodation for their worship.

We heard sticks and foliage snap in the forest, the movement down-valley of an animal. Then we spied the boar through breaks in the trees, tusking trunks and dragging its hindquarters on a path worn by the repeated passage of the forestís blessed creatures.

The boar snorted and stomped. It honked a squealed challenge to the camp, and we saw one of the worshippers emerge from its shelter. It carried a long, limb-like object, and seemed to balance this thing between its shoulder and extended arm. Suddenly the worshipperís head dropped, looking along the length of the object. Then a flame jumped from the end opposite the worshipper. There was a startling roar--the whole forest and valley shook with it.

The boar left off its squealing and fell over asleep. Then the worshipper and two of its companions retrieved it. We watched them drag the boar to their encampment, butcher the creature and hideously roast it above their immoral flames and putrid woodsmoke.

All of this we ourselves witnessed, the hideous depravity yet stunning ingenuity of these supplicants. At the same time we took great umbrage at their assumptive coarseness, at the blackened sin of them, we were pleased in the observation, knowing that the fabulous was confirmed. We were confident in their intent--to seek out gods and pay homage. To serve as penitents in the wilderness, which is, at the core of it, a right and honorable thing. They disgusted and fascinated us. We again and again had to remind ourselves that their moral putrefaction was the very reason for their appearance here: those who are holy and whole do not need gods. Conversely, gods are needed most by the wicked.

We spent that night debating whether we should make our presence known. There quickly resulted two minds. One, there was a part of us that believed we should remain silent and further observe the worshippers. Only by watching a little more could we properly discover how depraved was their behavior, over time, and thus develop a proper approach to their redemption. The second part of us believed our revelation to them should be imminent. The worshippers had exhibited ill-enough behavior already. We wondered whether to delay would irretrievably befoul the sanctity of our forest. Already we detected blemishes in the green foliage around us, in the forestís holy, spherical fabric. We needed observe no more.

"We are gods," the second part argued, "and must not be made to look upon sin for too long, lest it steal some of the deity from us."

This argument won the night. The essence of godhood is perfect, spherical holiness. At the core of perfect, spherical holiness is the absolute intolerance for unholiness. The worshippers should be acknowledged, confronted, and allowed to seek and receive forgiveness. Until then, the forestís wholeness and circularity was gravely at risk. The time had come to act, and with the pure courage of gods.

The following morning we gathered from our trees and caves. Our leader placed himself solemnly in our path in a holy and respectful fashion to ensure our readiness to confer salvation. He inspected the brilliance and keenness of our implements. He placed around our necks holy amulets and then placed one around his own. He led us in an invocation. A buoyant, restoring spirit filled us. Our labor would birth great blessing and righteousness. Our forest would overfill with wholly round sanctity. This was our great purpose that morning.

We stole down game paths before the sun. Mists whirled in low spots as we passed. The waking sounds of the forest bestowed blessings on us. The voluptuous fragrance of the air filled our hearts with belief. In the first vision of the sunís rays, soft and golden-green through the canopy, we saw victory and glory.

We strode to the edge of their encampment and assembled in a line of holy confidence. Our leader called them out: "Come here and be cleansed!"

His command circled the camp and hung in the air for many moments. We heard the sound of movement but none of the worshippers appeared. Our gazes moved slowly from each of the shelters to rest on the faces of each other, then migrated--as one godly inquiry--to the face of our leader.

"Come out and be made clean!" he shouted, more zealously, at the nearest shelter. We stood in a line with our implements of holiness. Another moment passed, and doubt crept into the folds and hidden places of our mission. Where were the worshippers? Why did they delay their own salvation? Their sins were egregious--to ignore the resolution we so freely offered might amount to a sin so monstrous as to be irredeemable! We shuffled our feet, shifted weight from ankle to ankle. Our leaderís hair stood.

The next things that transpired happened so quickly that the order of details might be beyond our ability to properly reconstruct. There was a flash of fire and a huge, engulfing clap. Our leader was made to go to sleep. He lay down in the dirt. The worshippers emerged. They were unimaginably ugly--complete fiends in appearance, monsters, ogres from the pit. Their stench overpowered, as if their evil flowed licentiously from every raw orifice. I can still hear their horrifying vocalizations in dreams that torment me. They waved hairless, pale limbs around, mixing a great wind of madness. They brandished the fire-spitting sticks. We lifted our holy implements. We drew into the shape of a holy circle around our fallen leader. Our backs were to him, our fronts toward the direction from which the worshippers might attempt to touch him. We glanced over our shoulders and saw that sacred juice was draining from a terrifying maw in him. He had fallen so that his amulet lay at the core of this wound. His hole was bright and wet and vivid. The color we saw must have a different, more horrifying name than red.

Slowly, without making a flash or noise again, the worshippers quieted. No more of us went to sleep. Without removing our eyes from the worshippers, we stooped to gather our leader in our holy arms. We left the presence of the worshippers without conferring redemption, or even a small spherical blessing, upon them. Had we mis-authored their intentions? Where we had thought we would encounter the contrite, gentle, shattered hearts of penitents, we had instead suffered an utter, even violent, rejection.

We knew this was a vastly wrong thing, to put a god to sleep. The wound was a curious thing, something we had never before beheld. It was shaped conically, the point of the cone being at the front side of our leaderís chest and intersecting the plane of his chest with a hole the diameter of a small stream stone. But the base of the cone, which was conterminous with the flat of our leaderís broad back, was as wide as a clenched fist. The volume of this imaginary cone was empty space. Put another way, the agent of our leaderís sleep--from which he would clearly not awake--had stolen a part of his sacred body. Either that or--and this is utterly black and horrible and noncircular, and young gods should not even be made aware of it--his godly meat had simply vanished.

In the flickering light of sanctified fire, we again debated. If their intentions were to make of themselves supplicants, their manner was mystifying and outrageous. We had made worship as an entirely holy and pleasant experience--in fact, it was the reason for creation itself. That they should express worship in such a corrupted form, so opposite the perfect original so as to render it anti-worship, was grievous. We pondered this as smoke was perfectly vectored away from our fur, and we groomed one another, and reached no conclusion in our divine debate.

But later, as we were parting hair with our female, an answer manifested itself. She had expressed some reservations about the holiness of the redemptive encounter we, even yet, still planned with the worshippers. She feared, even then, deep in what we would have described as her weaker heart, that there might yet be more of us put to sleep. We had vilified her for her waning zeal. Her convictions were weak, and unworthy of deity such as she should cloak herself in.

"Then," she suggested, "perhaps the worshippers prefer to be approached at night."

We stopped, having just retrieved a nit from her hair. We observed its struggle in our fingertips, felt the hard shell of it burst under pressure, placed it between our lips and savored its consecrated taste.

Yes, perhaps she was right--it could be that they wished to worship at night. The bleakness and enormity of their sin may be too much to expose in the direct light of day. They might believe their own trespass so great and non-spherical that to reveal it under the justice of the sun was simply untenable, too humiliating, unendurable. So that making such a public, open, lighted propitiation would be beyond any penitentís capacity. They were, after all, only worshippers.

And so this line of thinking grew in us and we became convinced, because of our female and her ministrations, that the answer indeed lay in offering them repatriation under and in the deep unspecified confession of darkness. Naturally--how would any guilty creature prefer to have its guilt laid bare? In broad white light, so that the hideousness and corpulence of it was utterly exposed? Or under cover of darkness? The choice is obvious, or so it became to us that night.

We ventured from the grooming session to persuade the others of the wisdom and righteousness and perfect circularity of this new course of action, a plan to yet save the worshippers before the sun rose again. We gathered us in the sacred sleeping name of our leader. We stumbled from our dens and vales and mists, into the wan light cast by the dying embers of our sanctified fire. We uttered an incantation then fanned the embers into a small flame. In its flickering light, we made known what our female had revealed to us.

At first we scoffed--that we should pay any heed to the advice of a goddess!

"You have fallen prey to her ministrations!" our uncle teased.

But we quickly drew ourself to full height. We made our countenance persuasive, and as similar to that of the sphere as possible. We argued that the source of truth is immaterial, so long as it remains truth.

"Witness the sphere itself!" We implored. "It is utterly holy and purely true, whether it derives from the lips of god or goddess."

And this--the notion that perfect redemption may better be executed at night--was exact and precise truth. We asked us to further consider the evidence for our new belief: would our leader be sleeping even now, forever, had we sought at first to administered mercy to the worshippers in the darkness of night? If we had dropped our instruments of grace upon them in the blackness, would we, as well as the entire forest around us, have come so precipitously close to their corrupting cries and glances and the stench of their daytime practices? Were not all of these abominations that sought to twist and pervert and putrefy our sanctity and perfect circularity--were they not all perpetrated in the lush, broad light of day?

We spoke as the oracle and prophet of our own godhead, and in this way, won all portions of us over, all in our own turn. Then we discovered we had no more convincing to accomplish, that we--to a god--were convinced as well. Not only was the cover of night the proper time for a great redemptive work, but we should not tarry. Every moment that brought dawn closer jeopardized the salvation of the worshippers. They, at that moment, slumbered in their valley encampment unaware not just of the proximity of their own damnation, but of our role in conquering it on their behalf. We encouraged our brothers and uncles: "We must hasten!"

We fell upon them like sanctified, purifying harriers.

That they feared us cannot be argued. They made us understand they wished to be sacrifices, so we obliged them with our sharp implements. We still hang from a thong around our neck the head of the yellow-haired one.

We remember this one for he was especially plaintive. His sins had been egregious, he claimed. He bowed and trembled in our presence, rising from his slumber to at first proffer excuses but instead, finally admitting his own depravity, laying his head to one side to better our angle of holy dispatch. His hairless skin glowed in the darkness, as our uncle foretold.

We emerged with the worshipperís fair head slung through a clasp on our belt. Purified fluid washed from the holy place where his neck had been separated from the corrupt part of him--his reeking body and its flailing limbs. Our brothers and uncles visited an extreme distillation on the encampment, separating the flesh from the pod, so to speak, disinfecting our forest of their evil. We watched as the malignant spirits flowed from their carcasses, mixed in a single anti-spherical specter and flew off over the canopy. Then there was silence of an absolute sort, a purity that bloomed like a fabulous black orchid.

Alas, the ungrateful, misologistic worshippers! It is clear that one of them rejected our mercy. In the holy confusion, one must have grown too fearful of the awful prospect of purification, of complete circularity. The alien discarded the notion of self-sacrifice and fled to the comfort of that which was more familiar, and easier, for him--the life of the unfulfilled, godless, still-seeking worshipper. It reveals his folly, to exchange holiness for a softer, easier road.

For after a number of nights passed, he returned to the forest fortified with more worshippers. Then they exacted a terrible revenge, having grotesquely misunderstood our gift to his former compatriots--those whom we had dispatched in love. He put our uncles and brothers to sleep, and, after defiling them, all the goddesses, including our female.

Only I escaped through the agency of holy stealthiness, to tell this unholy story.

They slaughtered the gods, and now they have no hope. So they have nothing.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Brian Ames

Brian Ames writes from St. Charles County, Missouri. His work appears in print and online in numerous places, including Glimmer Train Stories, Carriage House Review, The Edge: Tales of Suspense, Massachusetts Review, Sweet Fancy Moses, Redsine and Night Train. Pocol Press of Virginia published his short-story collection, "Smoke Follows Beauty," last year and will publish his second collection, "Head Full of Traffic," next spring.



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