Little Gods

By Tim Pratt, illustration by Mark Precious

"I wish I could be a little goddess of cinnamon," my wife Emily says, closing her eyes and leaning in close to the spices. I'm used to Emily saying things like that, so I don't take any notice, just nod and pick up a bottle of peach nectar off the shelf, slosh it around, wrinkle my nose. I know all the gunk in there is supposed to be fresh natural goodness, but to me it just looks like gunk. Emily says that I deny the truth of natural origins. Emily likes peach nectar, so I put the bottle in the basket.

"A little goddess of cinnamon," Emily repeats. "Or brown sugar." She crosses her arms, her silver-and-brass bracelets tinkling together.

"As opposed to a big goddess of cinnamon?" I move on down the aisle with my basket over my arm.

"Little things get little gods," Emily says. "It's only natural." She trails after me, running her finger along the shelves, pausing to sniff at the black teas, to open the lid on a jar of sugar-free gumdrops. Emily is always prodding, smelling, caressing -- she says that she is experiencing the world.

"So big gods are for big things, then? Like, say, whales?"

Emily sighs behind me. "Big things like . . . I don't know . . . love."

"How about hate? Jealousy?"

"Sure. But I wouldn't want to be one of those, nothing so big." She squeals in delight. "Ooh! Chocolate-covered espresso beans!"

"I didn't realize those were in season," I say dryly, but she isn't paying attention to me, has darted off to get a plastic bag to fill with candied caffeine. She'll be up all night, and she'll keep me up with her. That might be nice. Sometimes she likes to make love all night when she's had a lot of caffeine; other times she gets jittery and talks wistfully of the days when she smoked cigarettes.

Emily dances down the aisle, long skirt swaying, silver bells around the hem jingling. She shakes her bag of espresso beans like a maraca.

"Goddess of chocolate?" I say. "Would you go for that?"

"Sure. But I'd be even more particular. Goddess of dark chocolate. Goddess of Mexican hot chocolate. Goddess of hot fudge on a wooden spoon."

"Those are awfully small gods. It'd take a lot of them to keep the world running."

"Well, sure." She looks around the otherwise uninhabited aisle in an amusingly furtive way, then opens the plastic bag, removes a bean, and pops it into her mouth. "The big gods -- the gods of abstractions and ideals -- they're like CEOs, figureheads, upper management. I mean, the goddess of joy may get paid well, but where would her operation be without the god of hot showers, the goddess of hot sex, the avatar of angel food cake? I'd be just as happy to have one of those lower-level positions, one with nice, clearly defined responsibilities, a comprehensible mission."

"I love you," I say, feeling warm toward her all of a sudden, my Emily with her corkscrew black hair, her squinched-in-thought features, her clothes she's made mostly with her own hands, sewn all over with suns and moons. My flaky angel who reads the stars and knows how to make bread rise, bring flowers to life, tune a mandolin, make my heart beat beautifully along with her own. My Emily, who believes in little gods of tuna casserole and stained glass.

She takes my hand and squeezes it. We go toward the checkout. There is some commotion up front, I can't see what -- a crowd milling around, someone talking hurriedly and sharply. I don't pay attention, just push through toward the front, Emily's hand in mine, tugging her along -- she can be distracted ten times in ten seconds, and I want very much to get her home, to get into the hot tub with her, to talk about the little gods of kissing-her-belly, rinsing-her-hair, touching-her-face.

When I get to the checkout I see him, just a boy really, not even seventeen. He wears a mask like the Lone Ranger's, but his is just cheap black plastic with a rubber band to hold it on, something picked up from the 99-cent bin at an after-Halloween sale. He has a gun, though, and it jerks all over as he aims it here and there, warning people away from the exits, threatening the cashier, who just stands perfectly still, as if her brains have been scooped out or drained off. Emily doesn't see the boy, the robber-boy; she is looking off to the side at a display of kiwi and passion fruit, oblivious, she can sometimes be so oblivious. "Ooh," she says, and pulls her hand away from me and starts toward the fruit, moving on a course tangential to the boy-thief, the gun-boy.

"Emily, no," I say, and she turns toward me with her eyebrows raised, and in turning she bumps into a dump-bin full of suckers and packs of gum, her hip thumping the display hard and making a little candy avalanche. The boy with the gun jerks his arm up, startled by my voice or the movement or the sound of falling candy or perhaps just strung too tightly with the frustration of the motionless cashier who won't goddammit put the money in the bag like he told her. I don't know if the boy means to do it or if it happens by accident but the gun goes off with a crack and a stink (small god of lead, small god of expanding gases) and Emily goes down, goes over, tumbles into the candy display and it falls down with her. She hits the ground in a rain of neatly-wrapped sugar, the little bag of espresso beans falling from her hand, and she doesn't move, and the front of her is all red.

The boy-thief, killer-boy, runs away. Someone screams. Someone says something very calmly about calling an ambulance.

I drop my basket. The bottle of peach nectar tumbles out. It hits near my feet and explodes. Small god of the sound of breaking glass. Small god of small wet fragments.

Two days after Emily's funeral, with her parents finally gone and everything settled except for the pain in my head, I put a chair out on the back deck and sit looking at the birdhouse Emily made last year. A family of jays lived there for a while, but they're gone now, nothing left inside but bits of straw and sticks and string. My chest seems sometimes as empty as that birdhouse, and other times I think I've been filled with something hot and foul and gooey, cough syrup heated on the stove, thickened with molasses or blood.

I have trouble with time and living. Clocks don't make sense. I cry. I'm too hot, or too cold. The covers stultify me, and I can't sleep on my bed (our bed), so I stay in the living room on the couch, with my eyes closed so that I can't see anything, not the watercolors Emily hung on the redwood walls, not the flowers she cut the morning we went to the grocery store, now dying in the vase. Nothing but the inside of my eyes.

It's better outside, with just the natural world pressing around me, rather than the substance of the life Emily and I made together. Emily used to call this house our haven, our safe place, and I thought it would be so always. I never expected it to become a bleak museum of grief.

I watch the sky for a while, the sun moving, and gradually realize that my throat is dry; I haven't had anything to eat or drink since Emily's parents left. I get up and go to the door, part of my mind wondering why I bother, why I waste time keeping body together when soul is sundered. But it's easier just to go along, to move without thinking. I go into the house, into the kitchen, and the first thing I notice is the smell of divinity fudge cooking, that sweetness that is almost too cloying, a sweetness that Emily loved far more than I did. Then I see the woman standing at the stove and think for a bright leaping moment that it is my wife, my Emily, somehow returned to me -- but this woman is too tall, and her dress is too black -- raven's-wing black, slice-of-night black -- with no designs or silver threads. Emily would never wear anything so dark, and anyway, she is dead.

I move closer, wondering who this black-dressed, black-haired woman is, why she is in my kitchen, but I don't really care -- I am not ultimately very interested. Perhaps she is a friend of Emily's. Perhaps she is a thief.

She turns toward me, and her face is pale, white as sugar. She holds a wooden spoon. A large pot stands on the stove, empty and gleaming, and yet she moves the spoon inside as if stirring something, and the smell of divinity fudge rises up. I am suddenly furious (and even that feels strange, because I have felt nothing at all for days now, except sometimes a dull ache with sharp edges). Who is this woman, to come into my home, to touch Emily's things?

I snarl at her and she drops the spoon with a clatter, her mouth opening in surprise as if I'm the one who should not be here. I step forward, not knowing what will happen, whether I'll grab her or hit her or just firmly take her arm. Before I can touch her I am blasted in the face with a wave of hot air, and that air carries smells -- divinity fudge, vanilla cookies, incense, rainwater, cinnamon, Emily's skin. Emily's skin. A hundred other smells, too, all of them keying instantly to memories of my wife, all of them bringing up fragments of images and moments. Memories that a week ago would have been sweet now twist like corkscrews, jabbing like knives, reminding me of all I've lost. I go down on my knees, my eyes closed against that scented wind, my chest twisting and contracting as if there's some horrible crab behind my ribcage, writhing. I put my forehead on the cold linoleum and sob.

The smell, the storm of smells, fades. I lift my head, blinking, looking for the pale woman in black.

She is gone. There is no pot on the stove, no spoon. The kitchen smells like dust and nothing else at all.

I check the doors and windows, somewhat surprised to find that they are locked. I don't remember locking them, but perhaps Emily's father did so before he left. He is a large and capable man, slow-moving and sad, like a great and ponderous planet in erratic orbit. He would have locked the doors and windows for me. But that means no woman could have gotten in, and that means my mind is coming loose, not just hiding under a stone but actually coming loose, imagining things, imagining even the scents of grief.

I sit on the couch again and lean my head back, my eyes closed. I feel smothered, as if a wet curtain has been draped over me, stifling my breath. It's not enough that my wife dies in a grocery store on a springtime afternoon; I have to lose my mind, too. But why do I need my mind, with my mind's closest best companion gone?

I hear something like the movement of a bird and open my eyes. There is something on my ceiling, above the rafters, something like a black cloth pinned up at the corners and center -- a drape, a canopy. I look at it blankly, trying to understand it with my eyes. After a moment I realize it is not just cloth but a woman in a long black dress. The woman is suspended somehow in the center of the ceiling, looking down, and her impossibly long skirts are spread out all around her, covering the ceiling. I did not see the woman at first because her skin is nearly as black as her dress, and her eyes are dark too, and she is not smiling, so I cannot even see her teeth. This is of course not the same woman I saw in the kitchen, but for some reason my first thought is: They're sisters. Which makes no sense, as the other was white, and this one is black.

The woman's skirts begin to sag, billowing, falling down toward me, and I feel my sense of suffocation double, now it is like lying facedown in the mud while wet, mildewed mattresses are piled on top of me. I gasp and struggle to my feet, staring up at the woman on my ceiling. I grope blindly and my hand finds a paperweight on the end table, a lump of volcanic glass that Emily picked up on our honeymoon in Hawaii. It seems terribly heavy, but I am angry now, angry beneath the wet burlap suffocation, and I manage to lift the weight.

I hurl the chunk of rock at the woman on the ceiling. It hits her in the stomach and bounces off, landing on the coffee table with a crack. She squawks like a blackbird. Her skirts draw in quickly like windowshades snapping shut, and then she's gone, nothing on my ceiling but abandoned spiderwebs.

I sit back down, the oppressive weight suddenly gone, making me feel impossibly light by comparison -- as if I could float away, as if no one I loved had ever died, as if the sun were filling my veins. But that thrill leaches slowly away, returning to me to the grayness, the neutrality, that I've felt since Emily died.

I fall asleep, which is really only another flavor of oblivion.

I wake to find a man dressed in a threadbare black suit sitting on the edge of the hearth, cleaning his fingernails with a folding pocketknife. I immediately think of him as a preacher, as he resembles somewhat the country preacher of the small church my family attended when I was young, though he is clearly not the same man. He has black hair, a bit mussed, and a single heavy eyebrow that looks almost too hairy to be real. His face is middle-aged, hale and hearty, and when he looks up at me his eyes are blue and twinkling.

"Boo," he says, softly.

"Who are you?" I demand, irritable from being just-awake, irritable at all these incomprehensible intrusions, all these distractions from the grayness of my first week without Emily, the first of who knows how many weeks I'll be able to bear.

"I'm here to help," he says, sounding sure and self-satisfied. "A couple of the girls told me there was something funny about you, that you could see them, so I came to investigate things personally. And here I am, and here you are, seeing me." He stands up, folds his knife, taps it against his palm. He makes a peculiarly medieval sort of bow. "I'm the King of Grief, Gatekeeper of the Dead Places, and a Gambler of Bad Fortunes."

I don't know what to make of him. "Those women . . . ," I say.

He waves his hand dismissively. "Just little goddesses, handmaids, field workers, don't mind them. The one in the kitchen was the goddess of scents with sad associations, the one with the big black skirt was the goddess of heavy hearts. You don't need to think about them. I've taken a personal interest in you, because of your . . . peculiar vision. You can see us, and that means you're a special man, a man who deserves more than bad luck."

I look at him blankly; it is as if I am observing all this through a pane of dirty glass, as if it is taking place inside an aquarium. Little gods of grief? Like Emily's little gods of joy, of love? Is this the route my madness has taken, to make me inhabit a darker version of the world my wife imagined? How can this man be the King of Grief, with his threadbare suit, his greasy hair? Just looking at him, I know he has bad breath, and his teeth are crooked when he smiles. His eyes shine, but it seems to me that the shine is like that of oil on a rain puddle -- full of rainbows, but ultimately foul. Still, who am I to question my own delusions, to question the face of a god?

He sits back down on the hearth and leans forward, elbows on knees, rubbing his hands together briskly. "Now then. What will you give me to get Emily back?"

I sit up straighter, as if I've been given an electric shock, and the grayness recedes, replaced by a furtive and desperate kind of hope. "What?" I say. "What do you mean?"

He looks annoyed, his single eyebrow bristling and drawing down. "A bargain," he says, enunciating plainly. "You've heard the stories, haven't you? A man goes into the underworld to fetch out his dead wife, a woman gathers the dismembered pieces of her lover and begs the gods to put him back together, it's a classic tale, and here you are, in the middle of it. But it's a bargain, and I need something in return, if you want Emily back."

"Anything," I say, not caring if this is a delusion, not caring if I've gone insane -- better an insane world with Emily alive than a sane world without her. But of course that's a contradiction in terms; no world in which my beautiful wife is dead can be called sane.

"Your left eye?" he asks, flicking open his pocketknife, showing me the shiny blade. He grins, and there are bits of gristle and meat stuck in his teeth. "That's more or less what Odin gave up for wisdom -- is your dead wife worth as much to you?"

I think of the knife, the blade, the pain that would come, my vision forever dimmed -- but I'd have Emily. Would I give up an eye to look upon her again?

I don't even question. If I'm insane, insane enough to see and hear this, then my mind is lost beyond redemption. But if it's real, if this offer is real, how can I refuse it, how can I even risk a hesitation?

"Give me the knife," I say, holding out my hand. "I'll do it."

He laughs heartily. "Good man! But you're too eager, that's no way to bargain. Your left eye is hardly anything, after all. Perhaps if you also sacrificed an ear. Van Gogh cut off his ear for a whore -- is your wife worth as much flesh as a whore, hmm?"

I clench my fists, furious, and say, "Don't toy with me. I'll give anything for my wife. If you are who you say, you know that."

"Oh, yes," he says, voice suddenly like velvet, but even that image is rotten, and I imagine tattered red velvet eaten by moths. "I know. But would you give your life? Would you plunge this blade" -- and suddenly the blade is longer, ten inches long, a foot, length sliding from the hilt like a cat's claw from a paw -- "into your eye, into your brain, knowing your death would bring your wife back to life?"

I hesitate. Death? By my own hand?

"I see," he says, sounding satisfied, flipping the knife closed. "I thought you wouldn't. I mean, just because you caused her death, that's no reason for you to give up your own life."

I tremble, but not from anger, from something different, more brittle, more sharp. "I didn't," I whisper. "The boy, the boy with the gun--"

"He just wanted money," the man said. "But you had to shout at Emily, call the boy's attention to her, startle her, startle him. If you'd just kept your mouth shut, she wouldn't be dead. And yet you" -- his contempt is total, I am as useless as the gristle caught in his teeth -- "you won't give up your life for hers."

He is right. He is absolutely right. "Give me the knife," I say. "And give Emily back to the world."

"That's my boy," he says, and flips the knife over, and holds it out to me--

The sound of wings, battering at glass. Both of us look at the windows, and there are butterflies there. No, not butterflies, white moths. The man, the King of Grief, whimpers. "Shit," he says.

I smell dust.

otherworldly, golden eyes

A woman glides into the room from the kitchen. She has olive skin and otherworldly, golden eyes. Her long dark hair is pulled back in a simple ponytail, and she wears white pants and a white shirt; they could be silk pajamas. Her feet are bare. She looks at the man on the hearth. "You," she says, and the disappointment in her voice is heavy and inescapable. The man cringes. "Get out of here," she says.

"I was only doing my job," he mutters, folding his knife.

"Away," she says, and the command in her voice is the command of the mind moving a muscle -- it cannot possibly be disobeyed.

The man looks at me, scowls, and then climbs headfirst up the chimney. A moment later his feet disappear from view.

I wonder who this woman can be, to reprimand the King of Grief, and I hate her for driving him away on the cusp of my absolution, my sacrifice for Emily's salvation.

"He is no King," she says, looking at me, and in her eyes I see long years of looking at gray slabs of stone, of peering through air thick with dust. "He is a petty thing with pretensions, and I regret to admit that he is one of mine." She sits down beside me on the couch, and it is this unassuming, perfectly normal gesture as much as anything that makes me believe her. "I am the goddess of grief," she says matter-of-factly, and I don't hear the grandiosity, the capitalization-of-words, that I heard when the man said something similar. "He is the little god of guilt and bargains. A natural part of grief, for many, and therefore necessary to my employment . . . but his spirit is meaner than those of most of my helpers. When he realized you could see us, that he could interact with you directly. . . ." She shrugs. "He chose to violate all protocols and do so. I apologize for his behavior."

I nod. Tentative, hopeful, I say, "What he said, about bringing Emily back, about bargains, can you? . . ." But I trail off, because her eyes are sad now, full of twilight. I slump. I put my face in my hands but don't cry.

"I'm sorry," she says, and I believe her, but it doesn't help.

"If there are gods, then is there something more, a place we go when we die, will I ever see her again?"

"I am concerned with the living," she says simply. "Grief is my work, from beginning to end. The causes of grief, the resolutions . . . I cannot speak to those things."

I am not angry, only empty. I wonder if I am not angry because she does not wish me to be angry, if she controls me that much.

"It is . . . unusual, your situation," she says. "Not unheard-of, but rare. A loss such as yours can sometimes trigger deeper understanding, deeper vision. Needless to say, this changes everything. The process is made more complicated. By seeing us, knowing we're here, you interfere with our work."

"I think I can be devastated without your help," I say, but without as much bite as I would wish.

"Oh, yes." She nods, her hands folded neatly in her white lap. "Without a doubt. You can be destroyed by your loss, emptied out and drained. But without our help . . . it is unlikely that you will come out whole on the other side."

"It's supposed to get easier with time," I say.

She smiles, perhaps, but the light touches her slantwise, so I can't be sure. "Yes. I make it so."

"I don't care. Without Emily, nothing matters." And then, bitterly: "And it is my fault that she died."

"I can help," she says, and I hear the pattering of moths again, white moths against the windows. "The process is broken, but . . . I can make you forget. Carry away your memories, carry away your pain. This house and everything in it" -- she makes a sweeping gesture -- "is an engine of grief. But that engine cannot run smoothly, now; your perception ruins that. Let me soothe you. Let me make it easy. Let me take it all away."

The moths are inside now, flying around her head, and I remember reading once about a sort of moth that drinks tears to survive, clustering around weeping eyes to drink. I wonder if these are that sort of moth, and think: of course they are. They can drink my pain away, and leave cool white flutterings where the hurt used to be. That's her offer, her gift.

Anger penetrates my grayness. "No," I say. "No, no, no. No forgetfulness. I loved her. I won't give that up."

She brings her hands together, as if in prayer, and kisses her fingertips. The moths swarm together for a moment, then disappear like candle flames going out. "Then another way," she says, and puts her gentle hand on my knee. "We'll find another way."

I do cry, then.

She stays with me. She holds me while I shiver on my too-empty bed. She makes me drink water, but she won't let me take pills; instead, she sings to me when sleep won't come, and though I suspect the songs are funeral dirges from some lost civilization, they serve as lullabies. She says that everything will be all right, and from her, how can I doubt it? And yet, of course, I do. I doubt it.

She washes my sheets, clearing away the dust, taking away the scent of Emily that clings to the fabric. She opens the drapes to let light in. I talk about loss, my loss, and she listens somberly. She watches while I rage, when I punch my fist against the wall until my knuckles are bloody, and in the presence of her patient eyes I calm down, I sit. I am not angry at the house. She says little, but somehow her presence helps me. The grayness of the days just after Emily's death is gone; I am plunged headlong into the furnace, into the boiling pool, into the whirlwind of my life without her.

After the first two weeks, the goddess doesn't stay every day. She leaves me to sort through pictures, clothes, musical instruments, books -- these are Emily's earthly remains, as much as the body I saw buried, and I divide them, some to go to her family, some to be given away, some to be kept deep in a closet. I feel as if I'm burying her all over again.

The goddess comes every few days,

The goddess comes every few days, and though I tell her that I feel so broken and torn-apart at times that I fear I'll never be whole, she never offers me the solace of her tear-drinking moths again. I hate her for that, but I am also grateful. She is the queen of grief, and she wants me to pass through the dark and the tunnels and the shadows of her kingdom, and emerge into the light on the other side.

I ask her if she was ever human, if her helpmeets ever were, if Emily might, perhaps, have her wish fulfilled -- become a goddess of ice water on hot days, goddess of warm oil on sore muscles, goddess of breath in a sad lover's lungs. The queen wraps her arms around me, and the smell of dust that surrounds her is almost sweet. "What I am, I have always been," the queen says. "And as for others, who knows? If it pleases you to imagine your wife in such a way, do."

Like all her comfort, it is somewhat cold and all too truthful, but I accept her words as best I can.

She leaves that night, after brewing me a cup of black tea and kissing my forehead. My grieving is not done, she says, but the time for her direct intervention is past. From now on, the process will proceed on its own. From now on, it's up to me.

My first moment of happiness comes three months after Emily's death. I sit on a bench in a little park near the sea cliffs, watching the sailboats in the bay. Sailboats have no particular association for me -- I never went sailing with Emily, she never particularly exclaimed over the grace of wind-driven boats. Watching the colorful sails in the water, I find myself smiling, a true smile that won't turn to poison in a moment, that isn't a smile over something Emily said or did. This is a smile of the rest of my life.

I see a woman on the sea cliffs, and at first I think it is the queen of grief because she has the same sort of presence, the same sort of bigness, but this woman is dressed in yellow, not white. Her dress seems to be composed entirely of gauzy scarves. She dances lightly along the precipice, and when her face turns toward me for an instant it is a morning star, a sunrise after a long night, a sudden downpour of water in the desert. I recognize her in the deepest chambers of my heart -- this is the goddess of joy. And behind her come other women and men, dancing in colorful costumes, feathers and shawls and hats and capes -- the retinue of joy, her small gods. The goddess of joy leaps into the air over the water and shatters into light, becomes motes of brightness drifting, becomes the reflection of sunlight on the waves. The small gods follow, jumping after her, whooping and singing and laughing, and I find myself still smiling as they, too, turn to light.

The last of the small gods hesitates on the cliff. She wears a purple dress sewn all over with stars and moons. She turns her head toward me, her hair a cloud of soft black corkscrews, hiding her face. My breath stops. I look at her, wondering -- do I know that shape, that hair, that stance?

I smell, faintly, a trace of cinnamon on the wind, and nothing has ever been sweeter.

The small goddess (of cinnamon, of one man's love) leaps from the cliff, and turns to light.

I sit, watching, until her brightness merges with the sparkles on the surface of the water, and then I walk away, mouthing a prayer of thanks to the small gods of waking up in the morning, the small gods of drawing breath, the small gods of holding on.

Goddess of Grief, by Mark Precious


Copyright © 2002 Tim Pratt

Reader Comments

Tim Pratt is a graduate of Clarion '99, poetry editor for Star*Line, and all-around writer type. He spends most of his days working for a science fiction magazine and too many of his nights playing computer games. It's a wonder he gets anything written at all. For more about him and his work, see his Web site. Tim's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.

Mark Precious was born in Los Angeles in 1967 and graduated with a fine arts degree from Pomona College in Claremont, CA, in 1989. He currently works at Random Lengths News, an independent local newspaper in San Pedro, CA, as an advertising production assistant. This illustration is his first online publication.