In my twenty-fourth year of life I was selected for the annual duty of "person who talks to God." I suppose I should have been flattered by what that said about my expanding fame. The offerings for the previous two years were a philosopher and a scientist, both well into their fifties and highly esteemed within their guilds. They had never bothered to send a taleteller, and an apprentice at that.
God was handled by a collaboration between the two guilds, you see. The scientists tried to explain him and the philosophers tried to understand him. They did an equally excellent job at failing to accomplish either.
I can't say I was looking forward to my impending encounter with the divine. God had developed quite a taste for human flesh.
It should be noted that God is a self-appointed title. The creature claims to have come to our world from another dimension. He also invokes this fact as explanation for the reason our weapons have no effect at either harming or subduing him. I never did learn his real name, unless I really did, in which case his parents (if such creatures do in fact have them) possess a very peculiar sense of humor.
I suppose you wonder what it is like to look into the face of God. It is just like that. Looking into a face. God is a big bloated face set upon an enormous head that floats wherever it pleases. Not something gory, mind you, like, dragging the severed stump of a neck with blood and spinal fluids oozing out. Just a disembodied head with red eyes and a fat nose and a wide mouth with teeth the size of tombstones.
This is the part of the story where I meet God.
Actually, that is not true. First the scientists had to show me how to care for the simulades.
"Like this," said a scientist with a large beard the color of snow outside a burning house.
He removed a cap from a plastic tube in the simulade's nose and hooked up another tube. Simulades are not, despite their eerily plastic behavior, created with the tubes in place. The scientists have to put them there because they are incapable of feeding themselves. They are incapable of doing anything for themselves but the most basic of functions, such as going to the bathroom in their collection devices, which they are then of course incapable of cleaning out for themselves. The scientist showed me how to do that, too.
I made the mistake of asking how the simulades were created. The scientist rambled on at such speed I barely caught any of it, so don't expect my explanation to make much sense.
Apparently it all started when they discovered how to get cells to divide in an artificial environment. It started out innocently enough- growing guilt-free meat and organs for transplants. Expand the idea to a whole body and you have something that looks just like a clone, a copy of whoever supplied the DNA. Unlike clones, however, they have no childhood. There is no birth, no growth. They just pop out of the lab with fully developed bodies and nothing going on upstairs.
The philosophers say it is because they lack a soul. The scientists say it is because something in the creation process fries survival instincts possessed by even the simplest bacteria. I say it doesn't matter either way; simulades are creepy and don't offer very good company.
Now it is time. I have been sent to God's House, the place from which no one, human or simulade, has ever returned.
The scientist dropped me off with six gurneys and their simulade occupants without so much as a wish of "good luck." Scientists do not believe in luck. I wheeled them in one at a time and moved them into their bedroom, where I transferred them onto their hospital-style beds and hooked them up to their monitors. God liked his meat fresh and healthy.
God's House sagged in a state of long-standing disrepair. The simulade's room was actually the cleanest, since we were told their immune systems cannot stand much of a challenge. My quarters smelled like dust and had rat holes in the walls.
I tried to get some rest on the moldy bed while I waited for God to call me. At the sound of the bell I bolted up and ran for the big room in the center of the House.
God chewed at the chain like a dog with a tug toy. It snapped loose from the bell and he spun, shaking it. He tends to do that when he gets impatient. I have been told this is called an "oral fixation." I suppose it is not surprising, given that something like a third of his body is composed of mouth.
He circled me like an enormous planet orbiting a minuscule sun. "How I love this time!" he said with a crooked grin. "Who have they sent for me this year?"
"I am a historian," I said. I do not like to lie, but this was not a lie, if you look at it in the right way.
"Interesting," he said, halting to tilt his headbody and stare at me sideways. "Very well then. You have seven days, historian, to convince me not to devour the human race."
It was a game of symbolism. Though he is more than capable of eating us all up, he would never do it. We are far too entertaining to him. Really, what he said had the opposite meaning. If someone could convince him before time ran out to spare a single life, he would never harm anyone again.
I began. "As your entertainer this year, I have come to tell you the story of the time when our people met with yours, many years before you arrived."
He sneered and said, "Impossible! I am the first to open the gateway to your dimension."
I shrugged and replied, "It happened. It is recorded in our history books."
"Very well then," he said, and rolled his eyes and blew at a strand of greasy hair that had fallen into them. "Explain."
I said, "Once upon a time."
"Once upon a time what?" he said after waiting as long as his patience would allow.
I said, "Just that for today. Some stories begin like that."
He flashed a graveyard smile and said, "Very well then. One day down and you have not convinced me you deserve to live. Bring me my supper."
This is where the simulades came in. Lucky them. In the old days they used to send seven people every year, and each only got one day to talk God out of eating them.
I went to the simulade's room and unhooked the closest to the door from his equipment. The simulades were all male and they all looked alike. The scientists say this makes it easier to handle them. If none of them stands out in any way, they say, people won't be tempted to do foolish things like give them names.
I wheeled the simulade on his gurney into God's meeting room. The gurney made quite a racket, the way the wheels rattled over bits of junk and caught on rotten floorboards. God wrapped his slimy tongue around the body and scooped it into his mouth. He chewed for a little while, then vanished.
I never bothered asking him how he managed that, or the floating thing. I figure he would respond with something snide, like, "how can you possibly move about on those sticks you call legs?" Then I would be stuck trying to explain how the body battles gravity to accomplish everything from standing to running, and when you really think about it, it is quite a mystery.
The rest of the day was spent on what little chores I could accomplish with what supplies the guilds had left in the House. There was a ladder for reattaching the chain on God's bell. The simulade's room had a mop and some disinfectants. There were tools I can only guess were supposed to be for repairing the decaying woodwork, but for the life of me I didn't know who was supposed to use them. Scientists, philosophers, and taletellers are not known for hanging around the craftsman's guild in search of tips, and I doubt you could have paid one of them enough to set foot in the House. They are a smart bunch, craftsmen.
Day two. God appeared in his room and summoned me. I continued my story. "There was a man named Michael. He lived in a kingdom located in a lush forest. One day he was out riding his horse when he fell and hit his head, leaving him unconscious. This is not so unusual, as it unfortunately happens every day somewhere in the world, but what was unusual was the place where he woke up. Michael lost consciousness beside a river and regained it in a desert."
God looked incredulous. "Impossible!" he said. "If your people are capable of teleportation, why have I never seen you do it before?"
I shrugged and said, "That is part of the story, but you will have to wait until the end for an explanation and I am done telling it for today."
Another simulade lost his life, if being created as a vegetable can even be considered having a life.
Day three. "Michael stood and saw that he was on a sand dune. The feral beauty of the desert stretched out in every direction around him. He gazed in wonder for a long time before a single word found its way between his lips.
"Michael looked upon the strange world and said, 'Huh.'
"What was he to do? There was no door through which to return home, and anyway he decided he rather liked the new place. It was quiet and peaceful, with no obnoxious birds singing or children wandering into his path to interrupt his concentration with their play. Michael was not particularly fond of animals or children. He decided to see if he could make a living here.
"Michael slid down the sand dune and went exploring. He found a group of people who were as tall as men, with shiny black skin and pointy joints. They seemed content to ignore him, but he pressed them to explain who they were. They said they were the Black Ants, the lords of the desert."
God narrowed his eyes and chewed his tongue. He said, "In all my travels I have never come across this race. What dimension do they live in?"
I said, "That is part of the story, but Michael does not know the answer yet, so I cannot say."
Day four. "Michael asked the Black Ants to teach him how to live in the desert.
"A Black Ant pointed to a pile of stones. 'Take as many as you can carry and get them to Redog. Hurry!'
"'Who is Redog?' Michael asked. 'What does he want with a bunch of useless stones? They're everywhere!'
"The Black Ant gave him a dark look. 'How dare you insult the sacred rocks! Now, off with you!'
"Michael began to wonder if he truly would like living here. Nonetheless, he picked up an armload of stones and followed the line of Black Ants stretching into the horizon. The line ended at the throne of Redog, the mighty Red Ant. All around him an army of Black Ants shaped stones brought to them into weapons. They did this with their minds, letting the image of the tool they wanted to see guide their hands into making it.
"Redog took one look at Michael, rose from his throne, and cried out, 'At last! The one we have waited for is here!'"
God's eyes widened and he floated on his side a bit. He asked, "How could he know that? Do your people regularly visit this dimension?"
I said, "You will find out tomorrow."
Day five. "Michael felt a jolt of panic at hearing Redog's words. What could they possibly expect from someone who had only just gotten here and still didn't know what he was supposed to be doing? He knelt before Redog, as he would his own King, and said, 'Please do not think me a fool, but I do not understand.'
"Redog descended from his throne and placed a clawed hand on Michael's shoulder. His face cracked with an expression Michael thought might have been a smile. 'Our prophets predicted it,' he said. 'In our greatest time of need, a Non-Ant will come to lead us into battle. Take up a stone and let us see the shape of your weapon.'
"Michael felt silly, but he selected a large stone and stared at it. His hands began to move all on their own. They moved so fast they became a blur. Michael screamed."
God drifted lazily overhead for a while before he realized that was the end of the story for that day. He was beginning to catch on to how to recognize the flow of rising tension that can be used by a taleteller to pause a story and interact with the audience.
"How could Michael use the weapon-shaping power if he was not from that dimension?" he asked.
I stroked my chin and was silent for a good while. "I must admit I do not know," I said. "What an excellent observation. Perhaps, because Redog believed in him, he was able to believe in himself and access it."
The answer seemed to satisfy him. He stayed for a while after dinner to chat, which he had never bothered to do before.
Day six. "The blur of Michael's hands subsided and he was left holding the longest, most brightly polished sword he had ever seen. A constellation of diamonds studded the hilt. Michael gasped. He had never seen the King, but this was exactly what he had always imagined his sword looked like.
"Michael held it out to Redog. 'Take it,' he said. 'I am no warrior.'
"Redog shook his head. 'I cannot,' he said. 'The prophesy is clear that you must use it. If you help us, it will show you something you need to know to help your own people.'
"Michael frowned and said, 'I do not want to go back. If I help you, can I stay here?'
"Redog nodded. 'The choice is yours,' he said. 'I would hope, however, that you would care more about your own kind than a race of strangers.'
"Michael felt his cheeks turn red. He hoped the Ants wouldn't understand what that meant. 'All right,' he said. 'If you think I even have a chance, point me in the direction of the enemy and we'll see what this thing can do.'
"The Ants cheered. They finished making their weapons, and Redog led them to the top of the tallest sand dune. Along the way they sang their war song.
"'Putrid plants they would bring. Will we let them?'
"'Displace our sacred stones with springs. Will we let them?'
"'Kill to entertain their King. Will we let them?'
"Michael sang along as best he could without knowing the words. When they reached the top of the dune Redog took him by his side and pointed at the horizon. There, floating toward them, was an army of giant heads."
God floated past me upside down, hair brushing circles in the dust. This did not seem to bother him any. Perhaps, being all head and all, there was not enough blood to rush to anything.
"I do not understand," he said. "My people are mighty! We do not need to resort to raising armies like your kind. Why would Michael make that up?"
"He did not," I said. "You can imagine the difficulty of the task he was about to face. Poor Michael felt very small and weak, but he could not back down and leave his new friends to their fate."
God frowned, or technically, smiled. "What a brave, foolish person," he said. "I think, if I met him, I would almost feel sorry when it came time to eat him."
Day seven. No more simulades left standing between me and my fate. "The flying heads Michael saw had to be at least three times his height. Their skin was smooth as a porcelain mask, and each one was a different color. Michael felt as if he was about to be attacked by the fragments of a shattered rainbow.
"What a strange way to go, he mused to himself, though he kept his mouth shut for fear of upsetting Redog.
"The leader of the army was a white head that floated above the rest. He looked down on the Ants and lone man with an arrogant smile and said, 'Finally ready to give up your precious desert, Redog? How I will enjoy remaking this hideous place in the image of my own land!'
"Michael's heart sank. He realized that more was at stake than their own lives. If they lost, the very Spirit of the Desert itself would be murdered.
"Redog shook his sword at the King Head and said, 'As Guardian of the Desert, I cannot let this happen!'
"Michael was overcome with awe at the sight of the Ant's fearless defiance. He could not understand what a noble creature like Redog saw in him.
"The King Head merely smiled and said, 'I have grown tired of playing with you, Redog, but I see you have taken on an apprentice. Why don't you step aside so we can see what he is made of?'
"The King Head's eyes began to glow. Michael could not look at them anymore; it was as if they were pinholes letting out the light of a swallowed sun. He turned his head aside and covered his eyes. A noise like thunder ripped past his ears and something wet splashed on his face. He opened his eyes again and saw a smoking crater where Redog had been. The air stank of charred flesh.
"Before the horror had a chance to sink in the heads were descending, spurred on by the laughter of their King. Michael ducked an eye beam and looked out over the army of Ants. He raised his sword and began reciting the lines of the war song."
I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath.
God nudged me with his nose and I jumped. It was rather embarrassing. I opened my eyes and saw my reflection in his, close enough I could have touched them.
"Then what?" he said.
"There is more," I said, "but I have lost the will to tell it. I will be dead in a matter of moments. I don't know if you can understand how frightened that makes me. Look at how I'm shaking. It is such a beautiful story; I would hate to ruin it with a mistelling brought on by nerves."
He pouted and said, "I want to know if the King Head killed Michael!"
I shook my head and lowered my eyes to the ground. "Maybe if I had another day," I said. "Please, do not make me spoil the ending for you."
He snorted, sending up a cloud of dust for me to cough on. "Very well then," he said. "I will go hungry tonight if it means hearing the end of the story tomorrow. Use this time to find acceptance for your death so you may tell it properly."
I nodded. "I will," I said.
Day eight. "The Ants sang with Michael and shot at the heads. His ears were opened and he became aware of an underlying rhythm to the song, a beat that if followed allowed them to match the head's flying patterns. Any weapon that touched them shattered them, and their eggshell remains soon littered the great sand dune.
"Most of the Ant's army was composed of archers. Michael and the rest of the swordsmen dodged eye beams and protected the archers from heads that swooped closer to bowl them over. The air reeked of blood and shards poked through the sand to cut their feet at every step.
"Michael grew frustrated. He saw how the King Head floated out of reach of the archers, both keeping himself safe and leaving him unable to assist his army with his short-range eye attacks. What a coward! he thought. Such a contrast to poor Redog.
"He slipped behind the line of archers and set his sword on the ground. From a pile of backup ammunition he took two large stones and let his hands blur to create the image in his mind.
"His hands rested and he was left holding a pair of wings. Perhaps they were the first wings the desert had ever seen. He could not, now that he thought of it, remember seeing any birds or insects or any other flying creatures since he came here. The wings were as long as he was tall and made of metal so fine he could almost swear the feathers had come from a real bird. He took up his sword, strapped them to his arms, and beat them down, lifting him from the ground with a cloud of sand that startled the nearest Ants.
"Michael sailed over the armies and lunged for the King Head. The King stoked the fires of his eyes, but Michael easily spun out of the way and thrust with the sword. A smaller blue head placed itself between them at the last moment, adding its fragments to the pile below.
"The King withdrew and ground his teeth. 'Not fair!' he screeched. 'We are the masters of the skies. You will pay for this, Not-Ant. You have not seen the last of the dwellers of the north!'
"The cowardly leader called his army to retreat. Michael led the Ants in another rendition of the song to see them off.
"Just when Michal started wondering if his actions had appointed him leader of the Ants in Redog's absence, a strange thing happened. A spot of light appeared at the edge of the dune. It grew, and as it did so he could see the waving branches of trees. By the time it was done there was a little scene of another world shimmering in the desert heat. It was home.
"A familiar voice called to him from some unseen place, 'Michael, I have done this for you to reward you for helping my people. The Spirit of the Desert granted me one wish as its Guardian, and it was my wish that you be able to return home. Remember the last words of the King Head. There is a clue there.'
"Michael said his farewells to the Ants and the spirit of Redog, then stepped up to the portal. He bundled his sword and wings awkwardly in his arms and mulled over what he had heard. Dwellers of the north? Like the Northern Kingdom? That doesn't sound good
"He took one last look at the tranquil desert landscape and sighed. If only he could claim ignorance and stay. He knew he would feel guilty, though, so he forced himself to go through.
"Michael awoke with a start and found himself back beside the forest river near his home. At first he merely rubbed his head and thought, So it was only a dream after all? but then something metal clanked beside him and he turned to see his sword and wings, just as he remembered them. He understood then that he had traveled to the dream realm and been accepted as a citizen in that strange place where most of us are merely nighttime visitors.
"Michael made a crude sheath for his sword, strapped on his wings, and took off in search of the King's castle. He did not look forward to his task, as the King was rumored to be a nasty-tempered madman with a fondness for separating people from their heads, but he knew what had to be done. If he did not warn him about the approaching army from the Northern Kingdom, who would?
"This ends the first tale in the saga of Michael the Dreamer."
God had the look of a child fitting the last piece of a puzzle in place. He said, "Humans cannot really travel to this 'dream dimension,' can they?"
I smiled, shook my head, and said, "In the physical sense, as in taking objects you got there back with you, no. Michael could do this because he is what is known as a 'culture hero,' a fictional person who is larger than life and represents strengths we should aspire to and faults we should recognize."
God scowled and said, "You made that all up. It was all lies. I wanted to hear what happened next, but not if you made it up to trick me. I am ready to eat you now."
I wagged my finger at him. "Not so fast," I said. "How many days has it been?"
God mumbled under his breath. He is a slow counter. Maybe it is the lack of fingers.
"Eight," he said with a low growl. "I suppose now you expect me to end my yearly talks and leave your people alone?"
I said, "Only if that is what you said you would do, which in fact it is. Do you want to be like Brave Michael and keep your word, or like the King Head, who was a coward and a liar?"
God rotated back to look down his meaty nose at me. "I am no coward," he said. "And I do not remember the King Head being a liar. You are just adding details as you think of them."
"Perhaps not in that story," I said, "but he certainly reveals it in others. Everybody tells the saga with their own voice, but some things are the same no matter what version."
God seemed to be considering something. He finally said, "Very well then. Now that you have robbed me of my supper and entertainment, you owe it to me to provide a replacement. Tell me what happened when Michael went to see the human King."
I grinned and said, "Gladly."
God's House #2 was built as an addition to the main taleteller's guild hall. My Master was less than thrilled at first, but after a while even he had to accept that God could be trusted not to go back on his word about his new dietary habits. You can never be certain when he'll show up, but when he does the whole guild clangs with the sound of bells.
After I became a Master I took to sending my apprentices down to answer them. God is a patient listener, but he will not hesitate to correct you when you stray too far in a retelling of one of the traditional tales. If an audience like that doesn't prepare you for the rigors of professional criticism, I don't know what will.