The color of my home is red like an apple. That is what God told the father of all my fathers, who told all their daughters, who told me. I do not know what an apple is, only that it is sweet and red like my home. My name is Anan. I have lived as long as nine suns, and I have always served God.
When I was a baby, my father was chosen to be Nurse of God. As expected, he involved me in all the procedures of pleasing God. Every day, my clutchmates and I were brought before Him to play in the sand, for God delights in the happiness of children. When we grew older we were allowed outside the village to spearfish along the river where our mwku’oh cattle drink. The fat of scuttlefish, when rendered, made good oil with which to polish God’s body, and their shells were fitting gifts for children to give.
I have seen nine suns live and die now, and it has since become my duty to help clean God. This morning, as every morning, we five chosen gather outside my family’s house and walk together behind my father to the great tent where God lives. My father says that when He came to live with us my people had no village, but wandered after the mwku’oh with our homes rolled up upon our sledges.
Today the daggerwind rages, blasting the village with the desert’s glass dust, and so the panels of His house are tied shut. We enter only with my father’s permission, bent low in respect.
Inside we find that God has written a greeting in the sand for us. Hello to you, my children, he says. I hope that all of you are well this day. We knuckle dutifully and begin our work. Nananqi and her sister Wocamhsh scrub clean the wrinkles of His old feet, while Tsuvuyé shines His one huge eye. Yonweh, with her small hands, brushes out the crevices of his body. I alone have the prized task of polishing the golden wings through which God drinks the light. My friends smolder with envy, but I am the daughter of the Nurse, and so it is my right. God never said I could not be proud.
Sweeping my fingers across the glittering planes of God’s wings, I can feel the captured fire crackling within. Not even from His own welcome do I feel more blessed than in these moments. His body is stronger than bone and stone. Through drought and famine, storm and stagnation, God will be with us. With me.
When we are finished God scrawls His thanks with His one protracting arm. The characters for gratitude, smile, to you, toned by a precise inclination of His eye. Know, children, that I appreciate you all, God says, and my hearts bake in his warmth. There was a time when He first came to live with us when none of this was understood. But in His patience He taught my people to make sounds with shapes and so learn to commune with Him. Everything we Hhmuadi have, we owe to him. It was he who taught us to sculpt river mud into houses that could withstand the daggerwind’s wroth, and to fashion that wild glass into windows. It was He who tutored us in the natural hierarchy of men and women so that we would no longer live in our incorrect way.
As always, we pray to Him before we go, knuckles to our hearts, for the strength of our crops and for the fullness of the river, for a path to the Blue Star after death.
Sometimes God replies. This time He does not.
Outside God’s home, the village is bustling. The daggerwind has calmed, and the earth glitters like clear water. Families are rolling up the thick glass-catching cloaks on their houses to let in the light. The wives are heading to the field to reap needlecane. I spy a group of young men entering from the eastern gate with a dead wraraqwa on a sledge behind them. The ferocious cactus-beast is a full twenty hands long, and still bloated with the blood of its last meal. It will make a fine addition to tomorrow’s feast.
All Hmuadi have their work to do before then, and I am no exception. Women’s chores keep me busy throughout the day. There are mwku’oh to bleed for nectar, water to pull from the river and boil. When the sun begins to settle into the claws of the Mimirtaigh Mountains, I go with the women to ready tomorrow’s feast, stripping the sweet fruit from venomous needlecane by mazarine twilight and then by firelight. No matter how hard I am worked I do not complain—not now, not ever before. I accept the role that God has given me, both its blessings and its burdens. Neither do I cheat or steal, or strike others in anger. I should not fear to be chosen come tomorrow.
Nevertheless, when I at last crawl into my rootthread bedding, my stomach churns as though worm-ridden. So much rides upon such a small span of time. Tomorrow, those of us children who have lived as long as nine suns will gather before God to receive his blessing—to be chosen. After that, I will be a woman in full, ready to marry and make sons and daughters of my own. And when I die God will send me to the Blue Star, to live with my ancestors along the florid banks of a river free of illness and pain.
I should not worry. I know I am virtuous. But still, sleep comes slowly. There is a long day between now and then.
My hearts beat along to the frantic rhythm of the Choosing Song. I have witnessed this rite many times from the amongst the crowd, and though I dreamed of the day I myself would stand here at the door God’s house, at the cusp of womanhood, somehow I never understood the reality of it, the soon-ness of it.
There are thirteen of us who will now be as old as ten suns. We kneel on the raked dirt outside God’s house in stoic silence, in contrast to the revelry around us. I watch the young men regale spellbound children with the tale of yesterday’s hunt, pantomiming the wraraqwa’s snarling death. My own brother Mangiirse, the tallest and strongest, leads his friends in a drunken hunting hymn.
I remember how proudly he went to God at his Becoming two suns past, already a brave hunter. I have nothing to be proud of but my obedience. I wonder if I will be able hold my head as high. I wonder, quietly, if my obedience will be enough.
Finally, but long after my legs have gone numb, my father emerges from the crowd and raises his hands, hushing the village. Behind him, I can see men hoisting the windows of God’s house. The silence deepens as his holy body comes into view. In this place he has resided since he arrived from across the Sea of Stars. How great a God he is, to surrender heaven and live contentedly among us like an old grandfather.
My father beckons to the boy closest him. All the boys will go before the girls, no matter that I am the daughter of God’s Nurse. So it has always been. My father leads the boy into God’s house. It is hard to see, but I know what happens. A happy murmur ripples through the crowd.
I realize soon that my father wishes to save me for last. The other eleven children go by in what seems like seconds. All are chosen, all are flung into the embrace of the crowd to be met as new men and women, beloved strangers. Finally my father reaches for me, and I come unsteadily to his waiting hand.
I have been in the presence of God more times than I can count, yet kneeling before Him now, it feels as though I am beholding Him for the first time. I know rationally that he is not much taller than me, but from down here He seems a monolith. His body gleams like a geode, His surfaces smooth as ice and indestructible as the world itself. His fathomless eye swivels and fixates upon me. What does God think about, I wonder. What could trouble a mind as great as His?
His arm pivots towards me, the joints of His complex hand whirring softly. It hangs over me like a fate. My breath catches in my chest. I hover at the invisible seam between past and future, where one person ends and another begins.
I clench my eyes shut. I wait for His touch.
And it does not come.
In my head I stretch the moment as long as I can, giving it chance after chance, until I am forced to open my eyes. The hand of God trembles above me as if gripped by something unseen. The lens of his eye dilates and contracts at random. I do not so much hear the horror spreading through the crowd as feel it, a blistering chill upon my back.
My people are realizing slowly that my future has come, and I am not one of them.
My father’s hand closes around my shoulder, and a sudden, saw-toothed wail tears its way out of my throat. I rear up, thrashing away from him. He recoils as one would from a snapping beast. Fear uglies his face. Fear of me. The red earth beneath me teeters like a plate balanced on a stone. I run for my home, and the gathered village parts for me as though I am diseased.
I am to be exiled.
The deliberations were short. I am not the first to be refused by God, and nothing should be different because I am the daughter of his Nurse. I am no longer Hhmuadi, and so the obligations of kinship are not owed to me. No man will condescend to marry me, and even if I am raped, any children I might bear would be tsöach matat—refused from birth. As a girl-woman with no use, I and my possible offspring would pose a drain on the village’s resources. But more than that, I am abhorrent in the eye of God. My former people will not suffer me to pain him with my presence.
Of course I must go. I can respect the logic.
But still, it hurts. Like a death that does not end.
At sunrise the morning after my refusal, my father rouses me from my bed of blankets and leads me to the edge of the village. My father provides me with a heavy cloak, a bundle of provisions, a horn of water, and a lavaglass knife. There is sadness in my father’s eyes, but resolution in his jaw. I am to walk in a straight line to the East, into the desert, and never return.
I do not get far before the thought of my family breaks me and I come running back. If I can just see their faces one last time, take them fresh into the desert with me, then everything will be alright. I promise that I won’t mind dying. I know that he will understand. He is still my father.
I do not take six steps before a stone from his sling catches me in the leg, and I crumble into the sand.
This time he and another man gag me and carry me far out into the desert. This time, when he lets me go, I see in his expression that the next stone will find my eye. The last I will ever see of my father is his determination to kill me.
This time, I walk as I am told until when I look back all I see behind me is a plane of red sand and powdered glass cut into two infinite halves by my hoofprints. Within hours, that umbilicus will be blown away by the wind, and nothing will connect be to my home but the aching hollow in me molded to its shape. I fall to my knees where I am and wait for the desert to take me. I do not cry; I am somewhere far past that.
The fickle desert does not take me, and so I continue toward that uncertain place where it will. An empty day passes before I find shelter beneath an overlapping of stone slabs, and stagger into the hollow beneath to faint. Swaddled in my cloak, somehow I survive the hateful cold of the night, and in the morning I plan the direction I will go to die.
The desert continues uninterrupted into the east further than my knowledge of the land extends. Far to the south is the Sharp Ocean, a whorl of glass knives taller than ten men standing end on end, whose reaches have yet to be explored by my people. There is no life there, no water, no respite from the sun. Surely it would kill me. But to the north are the Mimirtaigh Mountains, forbidden to my people by God since a day long forgotten. It is said that to be caught in their shadow is to be hidden from God’s love. Thinking on it, I find the old taboos no longer feel so dire. And I am forsaken already.
I walk for what seems like the lifespan of a hundred suns. I had never understood how vast the desert was. When you are young, the world is only as big across as the furthest thing away you know of. But the world does not care what you know. My rations and water do not last long. I starve and thirst until I stumble upon a dried-up oasis and lap up the last of its muddy water. I find a few small, hardy fruits in the sand and stay the night. The next day I am forced to scurry up a heap of rock to escape a stampede of wild mwku’oh, lest I be chewed to slurry under their threshing cilia. Another day, I am given only minutes to burrow under the ground by the howl of a nearby Thirsting Tree. I try not to choke on sand and powdered glass as the towering monster lumbers over my hiding place, snuffling after the scent of moisture.
But in between these frenetic moments is nothing. Burning nothing. Freezing nothing. I almost welcome the danger when it comes.
I try, and fail, to not think of my family.
Sand eventually gives way to dirt. Little by little, the mountains rise up beneath me like pregnant bellies. As night falls and their shadow inches over me, I feel no more cursed than before. I do not know what kinds of beasts make the mountains their home, so I do not know what to fear. The trek is no easier or more difficult than it was through the desert, only steeper. I suck sour water from pools I find in bowls of rock. I gnaw roots and look for more when they don’t kill me. I sleep in the cracks between great stony teeth, and wonder when the world will think to scrape me loose.
It does not take long. On my third evening in the mountains, dark clouds begin to dew on the glass of the sky. I am quick to abandon hours of forward progress to scuttle back to a cave I know is safe; I reach shelter moments before the storm hits like a hammer. It is the wind’s wailing that nearly kills me; it masks the howl of something else.
I do not hear the Thirsting Tree until it is upon me.
I have no time to react, and nowhere to run, as the narrow cave mouth is invaded by a thicket of grasping tentacles. My leg is enveloped immediately and numbed by the monster’s venom. I am ripped from the mountainside like a dagger from a sheath. Frigid rain pelts me as a dangle over the monster’s canopy. Its clawed roots grip the rock above my hiding place, a spearfisher perched to harpoon. I watch a flower-shaped mouth bloom amidst its writhing boughs—the face of so many Hhmuadi nightmares—and unspool dozens of spear-tipped tongues.
I do cry then, because I am only ten suns old and never became a woman.
But I also grope for the knife at my hip and, curling towards my feet, slash it through the Tree’s boneless hand. Its scream defeats all other sounds; the pressure on my leg disappears. I squeeze my eyes shut, expecting a painful fall. Instead there is a light that pierces my eyelids, and a sound like a beaten drum as wide as a village. Something hits me hard in the side, and the next I know I am tumbling end over end down a muddy slope. I glimpse the Thirsting Tree teetering far above me, blazing like a torch. Then my head strikes a protruding stone, and I cease to think.
Some time later I awake. It is still storming, and I am still hurting. I lie in mud, at the bottom of a gorge. Beside me is the body of the Thirsting Tree, split down the middle and smoldering noisomely. In that struggling light I make out another figure. A single, crooked arm. A flat black eye. Outflung wings, in which flecks of gold glisten.
God watches me die.
I stir at something clanking. I sit up out my bed of mud and look around for the sound. The awareness that I am alive flitters unobtrusively through my head. The sun is out again, and I can see clearly that God is there, no further than thirty hoofspans away. He is drumming statically on His back for no reason that I can see other than to get my attention. For a moment I swoon with rage. God, who has never moved from His house in generations, has come all this way to mock me in my suffering. But there is something about Him that chills me almost simultaneously.
The God I knew was pristine white and silver. This God is utterly caked in earth, and where His body is exposed, I see now that it is a dull red like the earth of this world. I creep cautiously closer. My God’s feet were lovingly cared-for; the plates of this God’s feet have come unraveled and sunk into the ground, as if He has stood here for a hundred suns. And on my God’s chest, where He had worn a square of red, white, and blue stripes, He now wears one that is all red with a speckling of gold stars.
This is not my God, I realize. This is a different God altogether.
He stops tapping on himself as I approach Him as I would a wounded animal, staying well out of reach of His hand. I do not trust this God to be as gentle as my own. His eye swivels haltingly to fix on me; I can see that He is nearly blind with clinging filth. Over the course of a minute, He laboriously scratches something into the hard mud in front of Him; intrusive plants infest the joints of His arm. I squint to read His message. Do not be afraid. The same first words my God ever wrote that my people understood.
“Are you… God?” I ask. I have to be sure.
He writes the negative symbol. No.
Before I can reply, He begins to scrape out something else. You Hhmuadi, He says, after much effort. You come from place where God is, yes? Us hope to see you for long time.This not-God speaks his own language poorly. His grammar is full of holes. He uses the symbol for ‘us’ when He should say ‘me.’ If you come see me later than now, this tool may die waiting.
“Why did you never move from this spot?” I ask.
This tool broken on landing. I can see Him struggling to articulate himself. His diction is the simplest possible. Am immobile.
“Where did you come from?” I must wait for Him to brush away old words before He can draw new ones.
We provide this tool from place called Blue Star.
I frown. “You look like God, and you come from the Blue Star,” I say, “But you say you are not God, and you call yourself a tool. I am sorry—I do not understand.”
The symbols for me, name, question. What is your name?
“Anan,” I answer, uneasily.
Hello Anan. You are able to call us Morning Star. We are sorry, but your God lied to you.
I sit cross-legged before Morning Star, no longer fearful of him, because he is too old and broken to hurt me. He has listened to my story, and I now I will listen to his.
His writing is less ponderous now that I have washed the sand from his joints and pulled out most of the weeds. To begin, he says, the Blue Star is not a paradise. Hhmuadi do not go there when they die. It is a world like this one, but very far away. You could live one thousand times and never walk there. It is not a place of joy and plenty. There is as much death as there is here. There is even more death than there is here, for there are many more people.
“But you said there are no Hhmuadi there.”
Another kind of people live there. They look very different from you. You would think them monsters if you saw them.
“How many are there?” I ask, challengingly.
I wait as Morning Star inscribes a number, and then adds degrees of multiplication to that number, until he exceeds the limits of what is possible. I scoff at the absurdity of it, a number so large it has no name. The Blue Star must be carpeted in people as thickly as the desert is carpeted in grains of sand.
I tell only the truth, Anan, Morning Star chides. And it was they who sent me here a long time ago, as they sent your God here even longer before that. You must understand that your God and I are not living things as you are. We are a kind of tool. We are masks-that-walk, mindless as dirt. The people of the Blue Star could not come here themselves, so they sent these tools to see through. To live through.
“That does not make any sense,” I sneer. “No-one can make a tool that walks and speaks like a person. How can a tool love the way God does?”
The people of the Blue Star are very clever, Anan. We know many secrets of the universe that you Hhmuadi do not. We make sledges that float in the sky. We have weapons that can knock down mountains. You cannot even dream of what is possible for us.
“Us?” I ask, and in the very next moment, I coldly understand. I think of the loretellers of my village who through magic-seeming trickery can throw their voice wherever they like, sometimes even into another’s mouth. I think of the yeyemocawh, the Laughing Hole, that mouthsome predator who sings the songs of other animals to lure prey into its warren.
Yes, says Morning Star, observing the change in my expression. You are speaking with us right now, through this tool. There are many of us present, instructing the tool what to say. Just as there are many others telling your God what to say.
“That’s not true,” I snap without meaning to. My face is growing hot. My hearts begin rail like captives against the cage of my chest. “You’re lying.”
If that thing is God, then what am I? Morning Star makes a sympathetic gesture with his eye. We understand your doubts. You fear what it would mean if it were true. You fear that it was not divine will that ruled your life, but instead the whim of mere people hidden behind a curtain. You fear that you worshipped something no greater than yourself. You fear that you were cast out from your family for no good reason. But you told us you have always been virtuous, and we trust you. So why would God reject you unless it did not matter to him?
“Why?” I demand, shooting to my feet. “If that is all true, what would they deceive my people for, and why for so long?” I am too heated to catch myself saying them instead of Him.
It was not their intention. They sent their mask here to study your world, to know the Hhmuadi. But your people met saw their mask and called it God. They of the Blue Star decided it would be easier to let them believe that. You might not have cooperated otherwise.
My life, and the lives of my family, those of my ancestors, whose hearts all cleaved so dearly to God’s wisdom—all just pretend games. All of us, led along from birth to death by nothing more than a hand puppet. Of course I fear that be to be true. I flinch from the notion as I would from something venomous. But for all my want, I do not know the words to argue.
Even now I am compelled to defend God against these evil words. He was as much as father to me as the man who sired me. It was God who raised my soul, if not my body. But I try and try and still cannot see the logic in damning me to die in the desert when all I have for Him is love. My tongue is prone beneath a thousand excuses, each as light and thin as shed skin.
They say that God knows what lies down paths unseen. But I do not have his eyes.
Morning Star steps into the silence I leave him. We of the Blue Star are not one tribe like you are. We are two, and we have fought for a very long time. At first, there were too many of us for our world to provide for everyone so we had to fight for food and water and land. Now there is little left to fight for, and we fight because we hate each other. It was the enemy tribe who sent the mask you call God to your world. They wanted to know if it were possible to travel there and take your food and water and land. They wanted to condition you for their arrival in the future. We could not let them be the only ones on your world, and so we sent our own mask—this mask. When they make one spear, we make two. When they make ten arrows, we make one hundred. That is the way of our world.
“You must want the same thing, then,” I say, miserably. “You want to take our world to feed your own. If your mask had not broken, we would worship you instead.”
Most likely. Your world hangs like an apple among the stars.
I snort a surprised and unhappy laugh. “You should lie about something like that.”
Why would we? We have stopped our enemies from setting out for your world many times. Not for your sake, but simply to spite them. They have done the same to us. Many believe we may already be out of time. That the apple is out of reach. So we have no reason to lie to you.
“Then what were you waiting for all this time?”
We have told you the truth you would never have learned otherwise. Now we ask that you do something for us. He scribbles something more. The symbols for ‘return,’ ‘home,’ ‘destroy—’
Go back to your village and destroy God.
The first word to find its way back to my stunned lips is, “Why?”
This tool will soon break. We do not want our enemy to be the only presence on your world. If not us, then no-one. That is all.
“No,” I say, “No, no, I can’t do that.”
What do you owe it?
My family, my home, everything I love, one half of me declares. The other half whispers, everything that was taken. “I can’t just believe you,” I say pleadingly. “You tell me that all I know is a lie. How can I know that is not a lie as well? You are no better than God, to tell me what is real with no proof.” If there is a real world then let me stand upon it, I silently demand, or I will forget you for a fever dream and continue on to where I die.
Morning Star raises his hand to bid me be quiet. A fair complaint, Anan. There is a rock behind you. Go and bring it to us. With it, we will prove the truth of all we have told you.
I glance back at the dun-red stone he speaks of and go to pry it from the ground. It is no easy task, for I am withered from my slog through the desert. A thousand crawling things skitter out from underneath it as I roll it into my hands. The earth-chilled mass of it threatens to pull me over as I lug it back to Morning Star. Swung by a larger man, its sharp spine would cave through a head like a fist through an egg.
I return to find Morning Star with his neck bent, his eye downturned. His arm is tautly horizontal. He has left one final message for me scrimshawed into the ground.
This tool cannot move properly. It will soon cease to function entirely. It has no further use to us but this. Let it become the proof that you require.
The stone you hold is the fruit of knowledge.
Swing it hard.
I stare at the words for an endless time. And then I raise the rock above my head.
At night, my village is as silent as any other patch of the desert. I creep beneath windowsills, silent as an illness, walking on my hands when necessary. I have padded my hooves with a poultice of resin and grass to mute my footsteps.
I do not linger near my family’s house unnecessarily, though I long with both hearts to peer inside and see how my family has changed in the time I have been gone. To see if my baby sister has grown her teeth, if Mangiirse has earned the starglass hero-knife he always coveted. Perhaps they have not changed at all. They have not been through the desert as I have.
Never more clearly have I beheld God’s influence on my village, the invisible scaffolding of His tutelage standing around my house, articulating its dimensions, constraining its possibilities. Our laws are given, our roles assigned, our language taught. I cannot imagine what we might have become if God had never come.
A teacher is both the giver and keeper of knowledge. For every good thing he gave us, there must be a thousand things he withheld. A thousand paths along which my people might have walked. Without him we might wander the desert still, desperately chasing food and water. But with him we cannot help but camp in his light.
With him, we wander nowhere.
Only one man keeps watch outside the House of God. It is his solemn duty to sleep in the day and guard God at night. Rather than face his brawn and lavaglass club, I wait until his patrol around the House takes him out of sight, and then slip inside from the rear.
God’s form slowly resolves from the darkness like an animal imperfectly camouflaged. I hold my breath and wait for any sign that He is awake. I wave my hand before His eye to see if He will stir.
“Can you hear me?” I whisper, as loudly as I dare. “Please, God. Tell me you are real,” I can’t help but ask of him. “I need you.”
And even now, it is true.
Even now, I crave His absolute world. How could I not? All the happiness I ever knew was in the fist of a greater power. We Hhmuadi are not the product of our own will, and even now I could die with that, so long as I could believe it meant something.
“Tell me that you’re real.” I beg to be saved from the unknowable wilds of a godless future, for my world to be clutched like a sweet, red apple, so long as it is held with love. “Tell me I am wrong. Just tell me. Please.”
I wait, but I receive no answer, and I know that it is not refusal. Whether He is God or the mask of one, he is simply not there.
Perhaps it is night on the Blue Star.
I undo the sling I wear across my shoulder and cup in my hands the jag of rock that I painstakingly carried here from the mountains, across a gulf of sand and time.
I must be efficient, for the guard is close by. There is no hesitance in me; my faith has never been stronger than in this moment. I am without doubt that the great truth of God could never be shattered by just a girl with a stone.
This story first appeared in Metaphorosis, 3/29/19.
Evan Marcroft is a speculative fiction writer from Sacramento California, currently operating out of Chicago with his wife. Evan uses his expensive degree in literary criticism to do menial data entry, and dreams of writing for video games, though he’ll settle for literature instead. His works of science fiction, fantasy, and spine-curdling horror can be found in a variety of venues, such as Pseudopod, Strange Horizons, and Asimov’s SF. Find a complete list of his published works on his website.