A Plant (Whose Name is Destroyed)

By Seth Dickinson

1.

Naveen's boyfriend is now certainly a god.


2.

Specific considerations regarding his divinity:

He must in retrospect have been a god the entire time. He has not just now transcended whatever limen encompasses the mortal. Rather, Naveen has systematically eliminated all other hypotheses regarding Hayden's provenance, and only this remains.

They go out for coffee to talk about this. "I don't understand," Naveen says, "why you didn't just tell me." Naveen's boyfriend is named Hayden. Yesterday Naveen could have enumerated his virtues, beginning at Hayden's stubbled chin pressed against Naveen's cheek in the very early morning, proceeding outward in any number of directions: his humor, his gentle strength, his willingness to set clear but distant boundaries on the limits of his patience and empathy. There were significant degrees of freedom available for the praise of Hayden and his qualities.

This new problem has collapsed the space. Everything bottlenecks at Hayden's godhood.

Across the little patio table, Hayden stirs his coffee. He always takes cream and sugar, and with a kind of surprise, as if these are novelties to him. And is this, Naveen wonders, further evidence—a yardstick for the scale of Hayden's existence, stretching back into antediluvian times before the union of milk and sugarcane and the coffee bean?

"Sometimes," Hayden says, the delicacy with which he has chosen each word evident more in his diction than his cadence, "it's just not important to mention."

Naveen considers this. "Like if you're not with someone for very long?"

"Just like that." Hayden nods, his left hand open flat, a kingly gesture, his head a little bowed in some kind of formal apology. "Sometimes it doesn't come up before—you know. Before people move on."

"Okay." Naveen appreciates the honesty. It even makes him a little hopeful, because here, between the two of them, it did come up. "So you haven't really been this serious with anyone for a while?"

"Oh, I . . ." Hayden bounces his spoon. "I'm not sure I'm ready for that talk, you know? Not because of you, or us; you're wonderful. We're wonderful. But I just like to stay in the moment."

"That's fine," Naveen says.

And it really is. There are so many other questions to ask.


3.

One manner in which Hayden's godhood became clear to Naveen:

Naveen opens a beer for him in the kitchen, Amarillo IPA, glass bottle, refrigerated, sweating lightly. Kitchen ambient temperature 21.1 degrees Celsius; temperature of beer (by fast clinical thermometer, poached from work just for this purpose) 14 degrees Celsius. A little warmer than Hayden likes.

Wait six minutes, to guarantee warming, while Hayden—out in the living room—explains that the difference between a good TV show and a great one all comes down to chronology.

Serve the beer. Wait for Hayden to get up and piss, or get something from the fridge. Temperature check:

Amarillo IPA, glass bottle, unrefrigerated for at least seven minutes. Temperature of beer: eight degrees Celsius. Six degrees cooler. "All beer," Hayden once declaimed, "must be served cold. This is not a matter of taste. No! Even stout! It must be cold!" Naveen repeats the experiment two dozen times. The cooling effect is replicable, its magnitude consistent. Control beer left in the living room during episodes of serial television drama experiences no such effect. It occurs to Naveen that Hayden might have very cold hands, colder than a beer bottle. But he knows that this is not true.


4.

"I have to admit," Hayden said, during the first confrontation, the first what are you really showdown, when "wizard" and "alien" and "robot" were still on the table, "that all this experimentation is still a bit outside my comfort zone."

"Should we stop?" Naveen says.

"Oh." Hayden swallows and Naveen can't figure out why, why he'd swallow—nervously? is it nerves?—right then. Is it the question that made him nervous? Is it the fact that Naveen asked that question? That he only asked it now? So many possibilities—

But Hayden says: "No. Let's not stop."

Bayesian statistics are important to Naveen. He believes they are the only rational way to quantify knowledge in empirical systems.

Given that Hayden is a god, and that none of his past partners have determined he is a god and managed to inform the public, how can Naveen update the following probabilities:

—The probability that his relationship with Hayden will endure?

—The probability that Hayden is in some way dangerous?

—The probability that humanity's understanding of the universe is terribly incomplete?

Naveen has been so happy with Hayden. Sometimes he forgets to update the evidence for another question:

—Can this possibly last?


5.

"When I was a kid," Naveen says, "my mom and dad taught me about hundreds of gods, and they were just constantly fucking around with everything. Gods and demigods, everywhere, all the time!"

Hayden wants to have this kind of conversation in private, so they've gone back to the apartment. "That sounds confusing," he says. He's fascinated by the blinds; he works the rod so the light and the darkness grow and diminish.

"But it kind of fits," Naveen says. "I mean, look at the Greek gods. They're just big people, with raging libidos and stupid issues." He waves his arms like swan wings, in mockery of Zeus. "They were just like people. We had all these little gods. And they never knew any more than we did, really."

Hayden opens the blinds and leaves them that way. "I don't like theology much," he says. "It makes me self-conscious."

Naveen laughs. He met Hayden at a stand-up club, where Hayden liked to talk about his seven brothers and sisters, all of whom had terrible health problems. "Okay. How about powers? Do you have powers?"

"Sure," Hayden says. "I have powers."


6.

Experimental outcomes in Hayden's divinity:

Everything that could be attributed to divine agency might also be attributed to a freakishly unlikely coincidence. A beer bottle cooling in defiance of thermodynamics might just be the random ricochet of atoms, a one-in-a-quintillion thing. Even the big man's sudden terror in the alley behind the bar, where he and Hayden stumbled drunkenly to fight, could be the abrupt failure of some synaptic juncture deep in his brain. Or a reaction to something in Hayden's eyes, something Naveen has never seen.

"How about a semi-trailer?" Naveen says, as the big man runs. "If you jumped in front of a semi-trailer, what would happen?"

"I don't think I've ever had anyone take me apart like this," Hayden says. "I feel like I'm going to be in a roleplaying game."

When they go home Naveen hides his notes in his empty luggage. (It's Hayden's apartment, although he never seems to pay rent.) On the first page it says: I am now convinced there is something physically and mentally extraordinary about Hayden, and, underneath, double-underlined: he claims trust fund, gym - I see no evidence of either—

Was there one specific thing that tipped the balance, that convinced Naveen of this extraordinary truth?

He can't remember.

In the lab, under a microscope (borrowed, for a minute, from another grad student), the flakes of Hayden's dead skin offer no secrets. It bothers Naveen to do this. The skin came from their bedsheets, without any kind of permission.

But Hayden has not seemed unhappy with all this scrutiny, really. At least not that Naveen can tell.


7.

At night, after sex:

"Enshagag," Hayden says, curled around himself, talking into the pillow.

Naveen holds him and makes an inquisitive noise.

"I was Enshagag." Hayden pronounces it with an accent completely unidentifiable to Naveen. "Born to ease Enki. Don't go write it down. I know you want to."

Naveen lies still. "What were you god of?" he asks, after a little.

Hayden shrugs. "Nothing in particular," he says. "Enki grew sick when he ate the eight plants born from his union with Uttu, who was his great-granddaughter. So eight of us were born to Ninhursag to ease Enki. I was born last. I eased the pain in his foot. That's what I was for."

"I don't understand," Naveen says softly. "I don't recognize any of this."

"Good." Hayden draws away an inch or two. "It's all awful. Awful."


8.

It has always bothered Naveen that nobody ever does this in stories or movies:

"Hayden," he says, in the morning. "Please. We have to talk."

Hayden looks at him red-eyed and recalcitrant from a tangle of bedsheets. "I slept badly," he says, "if I slept at all."

Naveen has been rehearsing this speech, though not in the mirror, where everything is deceptively predictable. "You're an extraordinary person," he says. "You have incredible properties that defy my understanding of physics. Please. Come with me to a laboratory. Let us quantify what you can do, and how you do it. You could change so much."

"I can't," Hayden says. He draws the pillow up over his head, so that it hides his eyes.

"Everything that happens," Naveen says, "happens by some law. Even these things that you can do. Help us understand you."

"I don't want you to understand," Hayden says. "Laws are terrible things."


9.

Hypotheses that Hayden has shot down, ruled out, laughed off, or otherwise disproven (assuming that Hayden is telling the truth, or actually knows anything at all about what he is):

Gods are powered by the worship of mortals.

Gods regenerate lost tissue instantaneously, rendering them a useful source of limitless mass.

Some credence should be given to [any particular item of pop culture].

People can become gods.

Mythology is factually true.

Gods of different pantheons vie over the destiny of mankind.

You're going to leave me if I keep trying to take you apart.

Gods are aliens.

All this stuff you can do is some kind of quantum bullshit; or a really sophisticated illusion.

Gods are omnipotent.


10.

Naveen is an atheist, and he has watched a lot of science fiction, including every individual episode of The Twilight Zone (The Time Element and Rod Serling's Lost Classics inclusive) and The Outer Limits. He is on the watch for what's really going on. He is ready to accept sufficiently advanced technology as a whitewash for all of it.

Only - he thinks that he believes. He really buys that Hayden is what he is.

Every week, now, Hayden reads Science News with a furrowed brow. He prefers the hard copy. He never took out a subscription, but a little while after Naveen asked him to go to a lab, there was some kind of accounting error in his favor. The magazine shows up with the rest of the mail.

Usually he reads in silence. Sometimes he says "Wow. I never knew that."

"Everything just happens the way you need it to happen," Naveen says.

Hayden considers this. "Everything happens," he says, "exactly the way it happens."

"That's a meaningless statement."

"Tautologies aren't meaningless."

"They don't produce any falsifiable claims."

Hayden shakes his head and goes back to the magazine.


11.

A problem of scale:

Why does it matter to Naveen that this relationship should or should not endure, when he spends his nights in the arms of the single most disruptive element in the history of human knowledge? How many lives could Hayden alter or save or enable if he just made himself available to science? There must be a means by which he retains his youth, some technique by which the preference for a cold beer becomes spontaneous refrigeration, some nonlocal tunneling effect, some daemon of computation or transmission—

Why is Hayden and Naveen important compared to Hayden and the world?

This is how Naveen realizes that he is in love.


12.

Observations in support of the love hypothesis:

Hayden is always fascinated by the things Naveen has to say, even when Naveen thinks they are totally inane.

Hayden never asks Naveen to do anything. "I don't have to," he says, when this topic comes up (Hayden, don't you ever . . . need anything?) "You already know."

Hayden never starts fights, except once, a while ago, when he says: "Wouldn't you be happier if you stopped thinking about everything so much? I mean, can you even be happy when you have to take everything apart?"

"How can I even know when I'm happy," Naveen says, "if I don't try to take myself apart? How can I know anyone's happy if I don't know how they work?"

"You can just trust me," Hayden says. "Is that so hard?"

Naveen chews on this for a moment, uncomfortable. Trust is a proxy for the absence of evidence. "Are you happy?" he says, taking the bull by the horns. "Is this—" (and he means himself)—"what you want?"

Hayden watches him with an intensity totally unwarranted by the conversation, a desperate fascination that Naveen finds flattering, and a little eerie. "Those are two very different things," Hayden says. "Don't you think?"

Although Naveen's trying to play it cool, something in his mien must betray his hurt, because Hayden touches his hand. "I'm sorry," he says. He's got a big smile, an easy stand-up smile, but it is not the smile he offers now.

Naveen grips his hand in return. "I'm always afraid that I ask too many questions," he says. "That people will think I see them like—a clock, or something. A mechanism."

"Oh, Naveen." Hayden touches his cheek. "I love your questions."

Maybe, in retrospect, this is the first moment that Naveen thinks of him as something other than human; when it begins to seem possible that Hayden could love him.


13.

"You never ask me to talk about it," Hayden says.

"Shhhhhhh," Naveen says, rapt. In the television a man kicks through the embers of a fire, looking for a corpse, frowning.

Later he remembers: "Talk about what?"

Hayden opens his hands as wide as they can go. "Any of it," he says, stumbling, in an unusual way, over his own words. "Anything I saw. Anything I've done. It's been so long."

The neural networks that encode and determine the reality of Naveen's being are not, as Naveen understands it, well made for this sort of thing, this bridging of souls by way of word and intuition, without catalogue or heuristic. He swallows. "I don't even know where to begin," he says, already making excuses. "Last time we tried to talk about it you were very—hard to reach. And if any of it bothers you, really bothers you, well, I can never—"

He thinks about what he is about to say. "Sometimes I can tell," he says, reconsidering. "Sometimes I can tell."

"Maybe later," Hayden says. He smiles gently. "When you're ready."

It's hard for Naveen to tell if he's disappointed.


14.

Everything happens exactly the way it happens:

Enshagag, who is now Hayden, explains it to Naveen like this. Everything is written, he says. Everything has been fixed in place like the bones of a small fish, like the jewels set into the crown of the Lord of Dilmun. From the beginning of time to the end of eternity all things have been written, from our first kiss to the carom of dust motes at your funeral.

Naveen nods, following. "That's a pretty clear implication of relativity," he says. "Complicated, I guess, by quantum mechanics. But I'm with you so far."

Hayden shrugs, as if to say: that's all there is. "I have no power," he says. "I can't make anything happen. It's just been written."

"So it was written," Naveen says, "that all the atoms in your beer would bounce the right way to cool it down, no matter how freakishly improbable. That was written at the dawn of time."

Hayden nods.

"And what about everything else?" Naveen gestures to the apartment, and then to himself. "All this? Written?"

"I guess so," Hayden says. He sounds weary.

"And do you know what's been written? Do you know the future?"

Hayden shakes his head. "Divinity," he says, "is resignation."

"So you don't make the beer cool down at all." Naveen rises from the couch. "You don't think a spell or anything. You don't even know why."

"Everything I need happens," Enshagag-who-is-Hayden pronounces. "I don't make it happen. There's no—" He looks at the stack of Science News, hunting, momentarily, for a word. "There's no causal connection. Nothing to study or replicate. I just want something, and then, by freak chance, it happens. Nothing changes. All has been made ready for me."

"Okay. Okay. So—" Naveen rubs his scalp. "So you're not a real god at all, are you? You're just the implication of one. You're riding on the tracks someone else built."

"I don't know," Hayden says. "They thought I was a god, a long time ago. But I don't know any more."

Naveen pauses, stumbling, in the course of his thoughts, upon something sharp. "Wait," he says.

Hayden watches him with eyes old and ruined as the kingdoms that birthed him. "I'm sorry," he says. "I could say leave, if you want, but—"

"That would make it worse," Naveen says.

Because of course he can't leave if he wants. He can leave if Hayden wants, or stay if Hayden pleases. He can talk Hayden into a laboratory if Hayden wants to go to a laboratory, forget that one thing if Hayden wants it forgotten, love if Hayden wants to be loved.

Naveen believes in causality and causality says that everything the world has ever done to him and everything he has done to the world has brought him here to Hayden. And Hayden says that it was written to be so, so that Hayden can have what he wants.

"I need a minute," Naveen says.


15.

Metaphysical strife:

Really, this is a good thing, because Hayden wouldn't want a bad boyfriend, which means that he and Naveen must belong together, in some not-completely-transient way. Only then, wouldn't he have gotten it right the first time? Maybe he's a serial monogamist. There's nothing wrong with that. Maybe they will be happy together for a time and then move on.

Maybe Naveen's entire existence has been molded to provide the god Enshagag with a compliant and inoffensive companion. Maybe the foundations of his reasoning are rotten through and through, all the strictures of Bayesian inference choked by bad postulates, strangled by the will of this thing from the oldest era of human memory.

Or maybe Hayden has had enough, and wants him gone. Maybe this sudden revolted terror, this need to cut the strings, is the rationalization that will take him out of Hayden's life. As it was written.

There's no way out.

Naveen takes a breath.

Really, this is no different than status quo ante, because causality is still causality, and Naveen is as he is, written or no. His choices will be a consequence of what he is, no matter how he was made. Let it be as it will be.

Divinity is resignation.


16.

"I have to leave," Naveen says.

He expects Hayden to say I know. Instead Hayden holds him and weeps and wails and gnashes his teeth. It is the most alien thing Hayden has ever done. If it were something written on an ancient tablet or in a book about the translation of tablets Naveen would believe it absolutely, because that's how things happen in myths that are written on tablets: big, whole-hearted, larger than life.

Here, in this cozy apartment with the television and the blinds and the pale ale, it feels strange, like a performance, or a rite.

But Naveen cries too.

"I don't understand," Naveen says, after the tears. "I thought you'd make me explain."

"You have to go because it's the only way you can know that you're doing anything for yourself," Hayden says. "You're afraid we'll be so happy together that you'll never be able to believe it. Do you think I've never done this before?"

"But—" Naveen touches his eyes with the tails of his shirt. "How can you want this to happen, if it hurts you?"

"Naveen," Hayden says. He makes a little hiccupping laugh. "You are so bad with people."

Naveen doesn't understand that, although he thinks that it is probably an answer.

After the packing, after the phone calls, at the door, Hayden says: "There was so much I wanted to tell you. So many things to say. Things I've never said to anyone."

In the middle of the night, not so long ago, he said: I don't want you to understand.

"I can stay a little longer," Naveen says, unable, in spite of all the things he has torn and broken, to repress one mote of curiosity. "You can start to tell me—"

Hayden-who-was-Enshagag smiles sadly. "I think you'd be happier not knowing," he says. "In the sum of things."

And so it is.


Seth Dickinson is a PhD student in social psychology at New York University. He is an alumnus of and instructor at the Alpha Young Writers Workshop, to which he owes it all.

Comments

I really love how the speculative elements and the interpersonal elements intertwine in this story. Naveen's love for Hayden impacts his scientific study of him in that it is both a cause for it and it is the thing that makes him second guess studying Hayden.At the same time, Naveen uses the scientific process so integral to his thinking to discover the development of his love for Hayden.

To me, there is also a really interesting juxtaposition of science fiction and fantasy. Hayden's divinity and his descriptions of the mythos he came out of reads as fantastical, but at the same time Naveen's voice and scientific descriptions are something that I would expect to see in a science fiction story. Also, the exploration of Hayden's actual power (or lack thereof) brings an additional scientific look at divine creatures.

I also really liked how Dickinson develops Hayden's emotions and responses throughout the stories, much more interesting than an aloof god.

A very interesting and well-written story!

While the ending was sad, I thought this was an interesting story and set up. I enjoyed the metaphysical questions involved in realizing the implications of a relationship that's been destined from the beginning of time, ie. that this may indeed obliderate Naveen's consent. Well told.

I really enjoyed this. A fascinating rational/logical/scientific approach to verifying divinity in a modern-day setting, and an atypical choice of mythology from which to draw. I also appreciated the queer relationship. More of all of the above, please.

Excellent storytelling and character development. I especially liked the detail about the beer. Having been an engineer before turing to writing, Naveen's character really resonated with me (not necessarily personally, but, I know people who are that analytical and methodical).

This is brilliant. Like all good spec fiction, it uses fantastical elements as the backbone of the story but the real drama is in the characters. They are struggling in a relationship where their needs are different. Simple as that. I also love a story where even after everything is explained, there are unanswered questions. Outstanding stuff.

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