God

The Priest

                God works in mysterious ways. Man, the monster in his image. What a dark creature he calls to work his will.

                The bathwater, warm and red, lapped pleasantly against their bodies in the dimming light. Was that the candle dying, or his eyesight fading? The Priest could no longer tell as his eyelids fluttered slowly. So slowly. It was as if the world slowed, as if time ground to a halt, but he knew it was mere perception as life trickled from his veins and into the overflowing bath. The rosewater trickled and splashed onto the tile floor, the water made rose by the lives of the two men within. Yes, the Priest thought again, God works in mysterious ways.

 

                He recalled the first time he was commanded by the Lord to serve.

                The Priest was a child, no more than 5, a yowling biting rebel, a terror to his poor parents and siblings who watched over him with the fraying patience of the most tested saints. He was a terror, that is, until one night he dreamt of desert. One he had never seen in life, of endless sand, of dunes that twisted in the wind, where piano music played in the distance, carried to his diegetically by the breeze. Satie’s 1st Gymnopedie, a favorite of his mother to play while she stroked her swollen belly where the Father-to-be waited for his moment to be born.

                Come to me.

                And so boy walked towards the call, in his dreams a hobbled old man with aged face and weathered hands, until he saw before him a figure. A formless shadow whose dark hands danced effortless across a piano perched delicately in sand. Its eyes were two lights that hung in the dark where a face should be, which held no other features that the Priest could see. The piece finished, though the notes lingered in the air long after its hands left the keys. The figure turned to face the Boy-cum-Old Man, who somehow knew he was in the presence of his Creator.

                “Oh my God…” He whispered in a voice creakier than he remembered. Knees shaking, he fell prostrate on the sand, suddenly feeling all 70-80 of the extra years the dream had placed on him. “Oh my God. Oh my God. God. God.”

                Honor thy father and mother.

                Like the music, the voice seemed to come from the air. A dark and heavy thing, yet not unkind. Not demanding, but with the plainness of one who knew their commands would be obeyed.

                “God, I-“

                Honor thy father and mother.

                And suddenly the Priest saw himself, as the Creator saw him, as his parents and loved ones must have seen him. As ungrateful and angry, a whirlwind of destruction. He wept. Only five and already his life was so steeped in sin.

                “Yes Lord,” He sobbed. “I shall. I shall obey. I will be your light in the world.”

                And he woke in his bed, seeing his room, the world and himself as if for the first time. And from that time on his was the model son and sibling.

 

                One night, ten years later, after a night of shameful fumbling with his own most private of parts, fantasizing about formless darkness, the teenager met the Lord again in his slumber. Again he was an old man, falling at once prostrate on the hot sand. Again the soft piano tremored music through the air. There was no doubt in his mind he would serve, whatever his God asked.

                You must serve me and no others. The darkness commanded.

                “Yes Lord,” The old man acquiesced in a phlegmy tone, as his unnaturally aged joints throbbed rheumatically. “If I may, God…” He began, not lifting his eyes.

                Silence was his only answer.

                Licking his lips to moisten them in the dry-heat of his dreamscape, the Priest to become continued. “If I may… how do you want me t-“

                You must serve me, and no others. As the Lord responded, the Priest saw in his mind’s eye the man he was expected to become. A serious man. A somber man in the trappings of piety, who had forgone the needs of the flesh to serve the aesthetic vision of God. He was to take the sacred oath.

                “I see my Lord, I see your will. And I will become it.”

 

                And so he studied the good book, consumed Augustine, Tertullian and the exegeses of Origen. He forgot desire, or suppressed the remembering of his youthful and became a man of the cloth. One known as the most pious and most high.

                And for a time, he was content. And the Lord was silent.

                Then, 25 years later, a young man walked into his confessional. One he had seen in his church, lurking at the beginning of a service the week before, but had left. Something about the young man, his shock of curly black air, his soft brown eyes, his full lips, his troubled innocence, captured the Priest. He was striking, beautiful even. The color of his oak pews, and skin just as smooth as those varnished seats. He could tell by his darting expression that this young man, still mostly a boy, was in a dark place. Maybe it was a place from where he and the Lord still could pull him out. He thought of counseling the man, and something in him stirred. Something long forgotten. Desire.

                Standing before a crowded congregation in that moment, the Priest was desperately glad he wore a flowing robe.

                The priest tried to put the ‘man’ out of his mind then. Some dark force was testing him. Until that fateful night. When that beautiful boy walked back into his church and entered the confessional to lay bare his sins.

                “Forgive me father for I have sinned. It has been… well, I’ve never confessed.”

                The Priest coughed to clear his throat. “I’m listening my son. Tell me your sins.”

                Tell me your sins. Why did the prospect of sin suddenly excite him so? The Priest shifted uncomfortably on the bench, needing to adjust himself. Afraid that the boy would see. Thrilled by the chance that he might.

                The man, eager to unburden himself, started right from the beginning. “Well, as a child, I was terrible to my parents. I lied often. I stole. I-“

                The Priest, he tried to listen, but was too captivated by the hint of the boy he could see through the wooden slats. His well-formed body. His mouth that listed a litany of horrors, yet beckoned him toward unknown pleasures. He closed his eyes, and felt himself back in the heat. In the dying wind. The quiet notes of Satie called to him on the breeze. Unlike in his previous dreams, it was night, and the soothing music took on an ominous lilt in the darkness.

                The night sky held no stars, and it was almost impossible to see the Lord, a shadow against absolute black. The music this time, it felt like a parting, a mournful goodbye to the dreams that had come before.

                The aged priest, still so far from the man in his dreams, yet much older than the boy who first became God’s servant, took to his knees. “What would you have me do? Are you… testing me my Lord? How can I serve you? How do you want me to serve you?”

                The shadow did not stop playing, yet the music grew more distant. The sand between them seemed to stretch and grow, an expanse of death—the gulf, so vast, that has always separated God from humankind. The Priest never felt it more acutely than he did in that moment.

                “I want to serve you, oh God. But I also want-“

                Sin. The desert grew so wide between the two that the Priest could no longer see the dark God he served. So much sin. You humans steep yourself in it, bathe in the filth like fleas. You want to serve, boy?

                The world grew so dark, the Priest could not see his own hands pass in front of his face. The music faded, the only notes those of his breath—ragged and shallow. “Yes, God, you know it.”

                Then purge yourself. And suddenly the Priest saw a window into the asked-for future, he and the boy embracing. First in the church, then unclothed in bed, then in the bath… their eyes vacant and unseeing. Crimson water spilling out from the bath all around them, pooling around them on the floor. Flooding the room with their spent lives.

                Purge yourself of sin, and come to me.

                The Priest opened his eyes, and shook his head, back in the world, back swimming in his latent desires.

                “Father? Did you hear what I just said?”

                “Sorry my child, please say that again.”

                The Priest could see through the slats as the young man licked his full lips in fear, trepidation… anticipation. The man of God knew what was coming, he feared it. But knew he dare not defy the Lord All Mighty, the darkness who directed his light.

                “I was speaking, Father, of my most recent sin.”

                “Go on, my son.”

                “One of desire… forbidden desire.”

                “And who did you desire, my son?” The Priest asked, hearing the answer before it was spoken. A Man of God.

                “A Man of God, Father.” The young man, the boy, was now quite boldly meeting the Priest’s gaze through the lattice slats of the confessional. And somehow the Priest knew without looking in a mirror that the hunger he saw there was reflected by the need in his own. He rose, left the confessional, walking back through the oak pews to his door of quarters hidden behind the altar. He ignored the judgmental gazes of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, the silent admonition of the Mother and the Whore. He did not need to look back to know the boy followed; he could hear his steps echo on the stone.

                They entered the small room, empty but for a desk and small mattress that lay on the floor covered in fraying, threadbare sheets. The boy closed the door behind them and for a while they did not speak, staring at each other, consuming each other. Silent but for heavy breaths.

                Then they came together, and, after a fashion, came—together.

                They lay together on the bed, and The Priest savored this moment. The glow he felt unmatched by anything except that first moment in the Desert with his Dark God: who spun Satie gently into the air; who spoke him into a humble life of devoted service. One of servile delight that now found a dark end. He rose, still naked and still tumescent, and led the boy by the hand, docile after their coupling. Perhaps in awe of a man of God who could ravish him thus. Perhaps at some level aware that he was but an offering.

                He led him down a corridor and into the bathroom. He filled the tub with hot steaming water; got in, and beckoned the young man to sit in the scalding water. And as he did so took him into his arms. The boy’s eyes were closed, lips spread into a grin of guileless bliss. As if he too had been unburdened of his sins. His eyes were still closed when the Father picked up the straight razor he always left by the tub so he could shave as he watched. His body barely jolted as the Priest drew a wider, redder smile into the soft brown flesh of his neck. The boy shook only a few times before lying still in his Father’s arms, his life quickly spent in the dirtied bath water.

                “I’m sorry my boy,” He whispered, running the razor up the veins in both his arms, spilling his redness into the water, which quickly ran the color of the darkest rose. The waters-displaced by their slackened bodies—tumbled over the tub’s edge, staining the church bathroom’s tile with his final sin.

                As he lay there, as time flattened and wound to a halt, as his days of service came to their close, again he heard the music. It drowned out all other sound, that quiet piano, that holy musing of Satie, that call of his dark Lord

What a dark creature he calls to work his will. Man, the monster in his image.

Yes. The Priest thought. God works in mysterious ways.

                Then at last, he closed his eyes.

Peak Olympus

                Gradually they came to the peak and only then did their journey begin. The nattering old man, in a tan robe that brushed the ground, stopped and turned to his flock as they cleared the last outcropping of rocks. From here the pilgrims looked down and saw nothing but clouds. The enormity of the task before them had consumed all trace of their journey. Nothing remained but the question. Nothing but what they set out to accomplish: confronting God. Demanding answers for the enormity of loss.

                “Why. We must understand why.” Man, woman and child each had the same thought in the silence.

                The skies were clear, yet the flattened peak was covered in snow. The elder smiled, forgetting her tangled mass of yarn for a moment to run her hand through the sleet. It was fine and cold, melting quickly in her hands. Olympus’s top was a smooth dome and reminded her of her balding husband, whose hair had melted white, and then away to nothing as the decades passed. Still he refused to embrace age, clinging to what frizz remained as he approached his eight decade. He died in the bathroom, applying balm to his scalp purported to encourage hair growth. She buried him in a full, brown wig. It was what he would have wanted.

                Why? Why wasn’t I first? She closed her eyes, dropped her white knitting onto the white Earth, and awaited an answer.

                To the others who walked with her, trudging up the slope as she had, seeking answers as she did, it appeared that she stepped forward, dropped her yarn, and disappeared into the open air. They did not gasp, numbed as they were by their own losses, but merely waited. Waited for her to resurface, or for their own audience to begin. For her part, the elder did not know she was transported. Only that the sun rose, that a beam shining bright obliterated the world around her.

                If you were first. You would not be here. I require your strength, forged in grief. Step forward my daughter and be healed.

                The Elder watched her hands, watched the decades and the wrinkles melt away. Then her skin itself grew translucent. She felt light, became light, opened her eyes and saw a legion of billions standing before her. She smiled. Home, she was home. There, at the end of the first row, smiled a familiar, balding face.

                The Mother placed her silent babe on the snow. He protested this cool embrace no more than he did anything else, accepting the world with wise gray eyes. Instead he watched as she walked, palms up in supplication, towards Olympus’s center.

                “You cursed me!” She said aloud, eyes brimming with tears, voice quavering with madness. “You took away my husband, he who loved me best. Birthed me this… creature! Strapped to my back like a lodestone. I suffer and I must know why! Why this unnatural birth? Why take from me my one true l-”

                Midsentence, she too disappeared, and the others shifted uneasily from foot to foot, waiting for her to return.

                He looks at me and knows my thoughts. I hear in my head a child's voice calling me the loving names of my husband, taken from me in the throes of pregnancy. Why?

                The heady power of lost lovers, it builds between you even as you, unknowingly, cradle him in your arms. Look into your child’s eyes Mother, and tell me what you see.

                From the obscuring mist, she turned and looked at him, serene even in frost.

                No, it cannot be. He cannot be…

                Chance thwarts even my intentions at times. Your love’s accident was not in my plans, yet there is always another path. You two were meant to be together. To be together and serve me. Pick him up. Pick up your child—and come hither.

                The Mother bent from the mist towards the babe she once feared. He frowned up at her, as if to say “Now, do you know me?”

                “Of course I do,” She whispered. “Husband… son. Partner in life and thereafter.”

                To the others on the mount, it seemed as if her torso emerged briefly, reclaiming the life she once thought lost forever. There, in the fog, they took their place in the growing legion.

                Father and Son grew uneasy. It was one thing to commit oneself to confronting God’s might; it was wholly another to witness it firsthand. There was a force here that consumed them one by one. Its eye focused on them next. They felt it sweep them into the past, back into the hospital room. Back to the day that sent them stumbling down this course, through the cold and into the light. They too disappeared. Brother, Sister and Guide stood on Olympus Peak alone, the siblings waiting their turn, the guide hidden behind a knowing smile.

                Father and Son, in a white room beside her once more. The clean smell of death settled around them, an old friend they had forgotten but now faced again. Time passed, nurses and doctors filtering in and out, easing her pain, speaking words that passed around and through them. Words they heard and responded to, but at the same time did not fully comprehend. They crept closer and closer towards the inevitable. Knowing, yet not knowing, seeing, yet refusing to see. The days, they passed so slowly. The end, it came all at once.

                She had not spoken all day. The night before, after crying for hours, a nurse administered morphine for her pain. Now she only breathed, short, racking breaths, forced from her in spurts. In each gasp there was a little less life. Father stood by the window, unable to look at the beating corpse that was once his beloved. Son sat by the bed, holding her hand, reading her favorite cheesy mystery. The seconds crept by, each an eternity, each the briefest instant they would never get back. They relived this scene, they endured, both within and without themselves, wondering what they might change. Cursing themselves for not appreciating each moment, committing it to memory.

                These were the final minutes. Torture, paradise, all they had.

                The passing itself was not dramatic thing. One minute she was there, the dying Mother, the decrepit wife. The next she sighed, a brief hiccup, and was gone. Two, three seconds passed in disbelief. Had she squeezed his hand before she went? Did her eyes flutter briefly and focus on her husband’s face? Had they imagined it? Son blinked, thinking he might find himself back at home, and discover that the last few months were nothing but a dream. But alas, he opened his eyes and there he was and there she was not. Only a cooling mass remained where once there was everything.

                Grief rushed into the void, loud and violent and hungry grief. Father and Son held each other and wailed, but to no avail. No amount of performative mourning would replace what they had lost. A pit opened up in both of them. A pit they papered over with this quest. Here, bowed before God, the wound was exposed once more and bled afresh.

                They sobbed, and the voice spoke. Three words were all it took.

                She is waiting.

                They saw her, hale and beaming. They nodded and were subsumed.

                On the peak of Olympus, the mountain of God, Brother and Sister stood and waited. The wind cracked around their heads. Clouds gathered and in the wild air, it once again began to snow. A voice spoke from the gray.

                Step forward.

                Holding hands, glances resolute, they walked toward the mountaintop’s center. They saw a familiar smile, heard a laugh they thought lost forever. They too disappeared.

                Now alone, after waiting a moment to see if any would reappear, the guide departed, hiking back down through the frigid drifts.

On the Slope of Olympus

                Every mountain suggests a tragic tale. Beginning, as all tragedies do, at a broad foundation, a base of emotion. You rise, you climb, towards a narrowing peak. Everything leads to the highest point, the loss you cannot see until it looms before you. Once you climb the mountain, once your heart has rent in twain, you can look down. Past the thinning tree line, the scraggly oaks, the brooks that feed the streams that feed the rivers, the water always rushing down, down. You look past the mountain and see the whole of the land, and you see how inevitable it was that you came to be here. You see the leavings of all that fell away from you, the slow dying of the bereaved. And you look up to find that nothing remains. Nothing but the hollow feeling that has become all you are.

                This Father thought, numb to the cold, deaf to the nattering guide that lead them towards God.

                The brief moment of camaraderie had long been forgotten by the seven pilgrims, the seven mourning souls driven here by their need for answers. Indeed, as they climbed together, shuffling through dirt, tripping over weed and underbrush, they had never felt more separate from one another. Silently, they judged, each not recognizing their arrogance reflected in the others.

                How dare they? How dare they encroach on my search for peace?

                The old man, their surprisingly surefooted guide, prattled on. “Five minutes, not a second more, not a second less. Every question you can have answered in that span you can ask. At the end of your time, together we will decide if you can be allowed to leave. Or if you will join the legion of the waiting. We will decide if you are worthy.”

                Strange words, and since they meant nothing to the assembled—outside of the fact that they will be allowed to ask the question burning in each heart—they ignored them as they scrabbled up Olympus’ backside. Brother and Sister held hands. If one fell, the other helped him or her up. They did not cry. Neither were left with tears to spare. Brother stopped briefly to watch a ratsnake slithering past in the grass.

                Mama, he mouthed. Mama?

                She showed them how to trap small game once, in a wood sandwiched between two Appalachian Mountains. How best to bait them. How to find the common trails used by rabbits, squirrels, hares and woodchucks. How to move silently through these woods. It had been some years in the orphanage since, but slowly memories returned to them.

                He watched the snake who regarded him in kind, unblinking and not moving its flat-black head. Brother made to creep low and quiet towards its home in the knoll, to wring the life from it for its insolence as Mama taught him, but was pulled away gently by Sister. She shook her head sadly, not wasting words on what her reproving gaze made clear. No, they whispered, remember why we are here.

                We will ask God why together.

                Never looking up from her ever growing mess of yarn, the Elder didn’t miss a step up the mountain side that sloped steadily upward. Though her task consumed her, her feet had eyes of their own.

                Quiet steps for the quiet Mother and her unnaturally happy child. Father could not figure this infant, seemingly warm in the cold, never hungry, never needing to be held. The longer they walked, the longer its Mother continued to ignore the life on her back, a suspicious grew in him: this ‘child’, this thing, whatever it was, was not human. He caught the boy watching him back, surreptitious glances from beneath the swaddling clothes. The babe wore the conniving smile of a far older man, grey eyes gleaming with sharp intelligence.

                They ascended in silence. The air grew thinner, their flesh chilled and their souls dour. Approaching the tree line, the forest shrank away. Flora that survived the oxygen poor atmosphere managed shriveled lives, clinging to the rocky slope like gangrenous limbs mid-amputation—only attached by sinew and ligament—like a stiff wind would send them tumbling back down the mountainside.

                Yet they remained. As did the pilgrims, climbing past brambles towards the apex of their grief, God and the summit. 

At the Foot of Olympus

                They gathered at the mountain’s base, seven pilgrims. All came for different reasons. A father and son, mirror images of each other. Their faces cast in the hard-set of grief. The son’s hair was frizzy and brown, the father’s thinner and greyed. Both wore the long unkempt beards of many months of travel. An elderly woman, at first glance she appeared a frail thing just clinging to life, but the others knew better. Only the strong could hope to make this journey. Only the determined ever got this far. Two children, brother and sister, checked their packs for the climb ahead. They were idiosyncrasies equal to the elderly woman, two pre-teenaged young ones, but again, the look in their eyes presaged a tale of losses that would age any soul.

The last two travelers—a young woman with high cheekbones, freckles on her sunburnt nose and hollow eyes who stared mutely into the middle distance and an infant swaddled to her chest who slumbered and gurgled and never once cried—stood apart from the others. She wore the child like a backpack, seemingly unaware that it lived. For the child’s part, he seemed to want for nothing.

They assembled at the foot of Olympus and waited for the sign their journey was to begin. Father and Son did little to hide their unease at the other’s presence.

“Are you sure you’re able to-” Son started to ask the Old Woman, but her glare stopped him dead. Her look said more clearly than words: Mind your own business, boy, as I do mine.

“Well, we all have our reasons, I suppose.” He muttered to himself, shaking his head ruefully.

Father tried to help the children tending to their rations and clothing, but Brother snapped at him, barking like a mad dog. Sister did not even raise her eyes to meet his gaze or answer his offers of aid. The middle-aged widower backed away with his hands up, showing he meant no harm. Exchanging a look with his son, a whole conversation passed between them in silence. They agreed that their fellow travelers were best left alone. This would be no picaresque tale. They would trade no stories about the losses and hardships that brought them here. Their journey would not be peppered with the episodic remembrances of fellow truth-seekers.

Yes, he imagined very well that he already knew their stories. If not the specifics, at the very least their flavor. And he knew that he would be no more inclined to share the details of his pain than they were.

Even now, years later, Father saw, clear as day, Mother’s hand squeezing his one last time and going slack. He remembered how frail she was. How she looked just as anguished in death, frozen in the last moment of pain. He remembered the hospice caregiver’s last words: “She’s with God now, son.” Small comfort. Did God love her any more than they had? He very much doubted it. He looked up to the mountain’s peak, shrouded always in clouds, and wondered if the countless others who made the legendary ascent had found their answers at journey’s end.

Either way, soon his suffering would end.

He patted Son gently on the shoulder, lead him away to erect their tent and wait for dark.

The group split into four sections, waiting in a clearing between the forest at Olympus’ base and a quiet still lake. Its waters shimmered blue and orange, reflecting the sky. Wind whispered ripples across its surface. It howled in the traveler’s ears, and each of them were reminded of a different loss. Or the same loss from different perspectives. Father and Son sat around a makeshift fire pit, heating a simple dinner of ground meal and dried salted meat. They ate and talked of simple things, of their memories, of their quest.

The Elder sat, her back against a spindly oak, working with her thin fingers at spinning something out of yarn. It was a long, multi-hued woolen beast. Once it may have been intended as a scarf, but that had been years ago. Now it was merely her finger’s obsession, something to pass the time. A project she would add to until she died.

Brother and Sister, their losses temporarily forgotten, played on the pier that cut partway into the lake. Each trying to push the other in. Laughing, they fell in together and swam beneath the clear, calm water.

Mother and Child also stood on the pier, Mother still staring blankly, child still sleeping and murmuring in its dreams. No one came near her. Somehow they sensed hers may well be the saddest story of them all. What answers did she demand from God? Why bring the child?

After a fashion, night began to fall. The sun set behind the mountain and the group was left in darkness, segmented. The Siblings scratched stick figure patterns into the dirt with rocks. Father and Son prepared to sleep, in case they were not called forth by morning. The Elder knitted still, never once stopping, as if the action itself were all she needed for sustenance. Mother and Child had not moved in hours.

From the peak of the mountain came a sound like thunder, preceded by flashes like lightning. This sound and fury fell not from the skies but the mountain itself. A giant Tesla Coil. The travelers assembled, three pairs and the Elder, eager for whatever came next. One bolt struck the ground right before them, cracking loud and smelling of burning ions. It tore the ground asunder, shrieking and groaning as the Earth trembled. They covered their eyes and shrank from the noise and brightness.

When the dust settled, and the smoke cleared, a voice greeted them.

“Seven have come. Seven seeking answers to questions beyond Man’s purview. They seek the wisdom of a God they no longer revere. Welcome to Olympus.”

A stooped man, even older than the Elder seeker, stood in the cracked Earth’s hollow. Whether he had traveled by lightning strike, or been hidden in the Earth beneath their feet they did not know. He continued.

“This is the Rubicon. Beyond this point there is no return. Only forward, only answers to questions you may end up wishing you did not know. Ignorance is… bliss, they say.”

He turned and walked through the trees towards the mountain. The old man began to ascend. Slowing when he sensed that none followed, still dazed by his entrance, still rubbing the dots from their eyes and the ringing from their ears, he called over his shoulder.

“The time to come is now. If I pass out of eyeshot, you will never see me again. You will die, lost on this mountain.”

For the first time, each pilgrim met the other’s eye. Everyone nodded their affirmation. The unspoken camaraderie… we traveled too far to turn back now.

One by one, they began to climb. Towards truth. Towards sweet death.

The Price of Silence

I said nothing. A decision that doomed us both.

                “Well, what do you see?”

                The valley below me holds a beauty that is indescribable, and so I don’t even make the attempt. Tree branches rustle loudly behind me as Harold finally catches up, breathing heavily and full of bluster.

                “I said… what do you s-”

                He stops midsentence as he takes in the view for himself.

                “Oh.” He says, dumbstruck.

                “Yes, oh.” I finally allow myself those two words. And I realize the whole time I stood there I had not been breathing.

                Rocks stumble down the valley side as Harold prepares to descend.

                “Well, John… you coming?”

                I scratch my chin, itching at the week’s worth of stubble. “I…”

                I hesitate, how to describe my doubts? The sense of doom that accompanies my awe at the beauty below. Such golden rivers, glittering emerald glass, trees leak sap—an ambrosia that can heal any ailment, if the rumors are indeed true—we descend into the halls of paradise. This is not natural. Such a place cannot exist in the world we know. And so, to find it so haphazardly, after searching for so long, this smells like a trap. I know if I tell Harold my feelings, if I insist we turn back after the years of work, the sacrifice, the sins that weigh both our consciences, the darkness we perpetrated to stumble into this light. He would merely laugh and say the truth: that we have come too far to turn back now, that innumerable riches await us.

                So I say: “I’ll be right along.” And watch him scrabble down toward the valley floor, whooping and hollering, large piles of cash dancing before his eyes. I watch him grasp at the grass, ignoring how the sharp jewels cut his fingers and unshod toes. I watch him wade into the gleaming river, delve his hands in and come away with riches enough to last a hundred lifetimes. I watch him kneel before the trees bleeding amber, suckling greedily at their fonts, as his skin grows clearer and decades of life fall away from his weary brow. I watch him accomplish everything we dreamed of and more, and my doubts fall away.

                He turns to me, eyes brimming with tears, joyful tears, smiling as I have not seen him smile since we were children: open and unburdened and free.

                “Jon,” He cries, “What are you waiting for… an invitation from God herself?”

                “God…” I whisper.

                And that reminds me of the specter I feared, words from a holy book none of us bothered to read, raised as we were in an irreligious foster home. Words I scanned idly in a history class, which stuck with me in my gut, even as they passed by my mind. Words of warning from God, creator of Heaven, of Hell, of Aeden, the garden born free of men.

                “Beware to those of the other sex, the sex that infects my progeny with life. He who enters my gardens without permission, shall not so easily leave. Beware…”

                She left Cayne with that warning, disappearing in a flock of sparrows. Her voice carried in their chirping song. A hundred high-pitched echoes.

                “Beware… beware…”

                “Harold, I think we shoul-”

                But suddenly the smile leaves his face, and I know somehow that my warning comes far too late, that I should have spoken immediately of my secret doubt. He looks down at his feet, sees them encased in green. The bejeweled grass winds insidiously up his legs, turning them hard and bright and unbreakable like the emerald itself.

“Jon, I… help me!”

I dare not move, but I also dare not turn away. God’s punishment weighs on us both. He is to suffer. I am to watch, helpless before the transfiguring of my brother.

“Jon…” He smiles again. He knows I cannot come, to do so would be my own end, and does not ask me again. “It’s okay. I’m okay. This was worth it Jon.”

His stomach glows golden, the swallowed ambrosia playing its part. The gold in his hands melts against them and swims up his arms and around his neck. He gasps and chokes and his eyes roll up in his head.

                “Jon… Jon.” He spits, and then does not speak again. Frozen, the golden melted metal that just covered his head slowly bleeds through his clothes. The transformation is complete.

Down in the valley, amongst the impossible riches impossibly grown, there stands a statue. One eerily reminiscent of a man I once knew.

                I flee back through the trees, forgetting the path that led me here. Leaving the man I once called brother. That is all my sanity will allow. And as I flee, I hear whispered on the wind like a chorus of song birds:

                …Beware…

                At night, I hear that voice still. I close my eyes and see the gilded smile frozen on his face. And I know, Harold’s doom came with his death, with becoming an object in a land not meant for men. Mine comes in the living, in surviving, in knowing I said nothing, and that silence doomed us both.