The humans made sacrifices depending on their local culture. Effigies in straw of what they imagined he looked like were burned, and elsewhere, goats and even virgins were ceremoniously killed on a slab of rock or marble--an altar--those that weren't thrown into a volcano. How that was supposed to help was a mystery to Bob. The god of earthly fires supplied decent soil after the fact, but helped not on a season-to-season basis. Why should he be appeased?
Droughts were his best time. Feeling unappreciated and resentful, he'd hold back the saving rain, torturing Earth, its creatures, and the people who depended on him for food and livelihood. It never occurred to Bob that he caused the droughts in the first place out of sheer laziness and a disdain for the responsibilities of his assignment. Other gods called him vindictive and mean-spirited and worse. Such accusations, however, were balm to his self-pitying soul. Attention, a little attention; that was all he wanted, some recognition. People were always going to appeal to his good nature, so what? He didn't care about them or their lame sacrifices, he wanted approval and praise from the other gods. However, that was not to be; in fact, the council of gods disapproved strongly of his behavior and one day called him to appear before them to resolve the issue.
The council consisted of five gods, Fred was the chief. Long before Bob's time, Fred had regulated the creation and rudimentary beginnings of Earth. He held mastery over the sun and its gravity and, during the great bombardment and formation of the planets, created Jupiter to protect Earth and its lifeforms from asteroids and comets. A few mishaps occurred, but the system worked well enough. And as it turned out, one of those unfortunate accidents set the stage for the emergence of humans. Not necessarily a good thing for the rest of the planet, however.
Sharlene, goddess of winter, was his consort. She had it in for Bob since the time he let her special garden high in the Himalayas go fallow from lack of water during one of his snit fits. It didn't look promising for Bob.
As hearings go, it didn't last long. Documented evidence of his sloppy work--allowing droughts to continue far too long in one area and monsoon-caused floods to occur in others--was plentiful. He shirked his duty while living the good life of debauchery and casual cruelties. "This can't go on," pronounced Fred, more than a little peeved. Bob slouched in his chair, ignoring the proceedings, engrossed by the play of sunlight on the crystal dais behind which the council sat. They talked among themselves, discussing the ins-and-outs, not even bothering to retire to chambers. After a few minutes, Fred spoke, "Bob, god of rain, the council has decided on a suitable punishment for your many willful and heinous acts." A pause, theatrical in part, separated them from Bob. He felt the disconnect and immediately sat up straight, hands folded in front of him on the marble table. But it was too late for displays of respect and deference. The hammer was coming down.
"We have decided, for the good of us all, that you must learn to appreciate the importance of your job description. Accordingly, you are to be stripped of your godly powers and sent to Earth as a human, to live among them, to learn from them, and to experience the meaning of rain firsthand."
Bob stood, knocking over his chair. "You can't do this," he pleaded. "I am a god, how can you force me to submit to the trials and tribulations of being human? I don't deserve it. Give me another chance. I'll do better, I promise."
The council members stood. Almondo, god of the rivers, sneered his ill will. Bob had been an uncooperative thorn in his side ever since he was appointed overseer of rain. He was quite pleased with Bob's punishment and, in fact, wished it was far worse. Bob didn't have a lot of friends anywhere, least of all on the council. He hadn't been playing well with others, now he was about to discover the consequences.
Fred spoke in a language Bob never heard before. When he finished, everything went black. Bob was aware of himself, but that was it; otherwise, he had no sensations, not of his body or of moving. As far as he was concerned, he remained in the council's courtroom. Time went by during which he felt a change come over him. Something lost, taken away, leaving him with what, he had no idea. However, he soon was to find out.
The stench nearly dropped him to his knees. Flies buzzed everywhere, crashing into his face, hitting his bare arms. Bodies of people lay strewn all around him, covered in blood, disfigured, limbs missing. His clothing was shabby and worn, his leather sandals muddied. Beyond the bodies a burnt field of straw undulated away towards a village near the horizon. An odd sensation grumbled in his stomach, and his mouth was parched. Bob had never felt this before. As a god, he had no need of sustenance; he lived off the energy latent in the void. But that was then; this is now. He couldn't waste any time feeling sorry for himself, he was in the middle of something horrendous and he better figure it out soon. He needed direction--find food and water.
He began to walk, another new experience; surprised that he knew how, he almost stumbled. Carefully, he navigated through the mass of dead to the dirt road adjacent. He gauged the village at 20 miles; how he could do that he didn't know. And whether or not he could walk that far, he'd have to find out. Banishment to humanity brought with it certain abilities he never before needed. Each was and would be an act of discovery, and with each he'd have to trust that he knew how.
It was hot, the sun beat down; he cursed Fred. Potholes scarred the road and the weight of wheels had gouged two deep tracks. On both sides were trees and thick brush. Not knowing what dangers may lie within, he walked down the middle. As he learned how to move his body, his sandals occasionally scuffed up small clouds of fine brown dust. His thirst intensified and his head throbbed as the heat and dry dirt in his nostrils worked his body. Twenty miles, he thought, and as he did, he began to try to figure out how long it would take. Like everything else so far, he never had to calculate distances and times; he willed to be somehwere and there he was.
Several variables were at play. First of all, does this road lead to the village or away from it? How straight is it? And if it does lead to the village and is fairly straight, how long will it take at my currrent speed? He had no idea about any of that. He was a stranger in an alien landscape and caught in the midst of some violent goings-on. With difficulty, he supressed the image of the dead as he walked away. Why was I there? he wondered. And why was I the only one alive?
In mid-shuffle he heard noise coming from around a curve in front. Relief at the prospect of water quickly transformed into serious misgivings. Remember the stinking dead bodies? he asked himself. He ran into the bush as quietly as he could and hid behind a fallen moss-covered tree and peered under a branch at the road. Men in uniforms holding long sticks of some kind walked down both sides of it. Between them were men and women tied to one another with ropes, maybe as many as a hundred, heading towards the pile of dead bodies. He knew instinctively that they would be killed, and they had to know that also. Why not fight? he thought. Why just let yourself be led down the road to your death? New sensations welled up. Anger, helplessness, outrage mingled and raced through his body, raw and unmitigated. He never considered death before; never had to; he was immortal. It'd held no significance. But now with its possibility and proof of its reality flung into his face, it meant everything. But he didn't understand why, he just knew it.
The uniforms prodded and kicked their prisoners. Bob grew angrier and wished for only one minute in possession of his god powers. They marched past with hardly a whimper of protest from the bedraggled mass of people soon to be killed. Bob decided to forgo the road and take his chances cutting across the thick jungle. He stumbled over underbrush; branches and twigs buried in years of leaves caught him up repeatedly, wearing down what little reserves he had left. Abruptly, he stopped to listen. A sound, continuous as it varied in pitch, came from ahead. He ventured forward, slowly, cautiously, pushing brush and tree limbs aside. The sound grew louder and more chilling until he broke through a hedge of bushes onto a narrow brook running speedily, cutting a meandering path. He fell to his knees and drank the cool water in stages. Revitalized, he rested on the sandy bank and stared up at the massive tall trees. Their canopy blocked out the sky; the heat from the road was well behind. He lay there, hungry but not in any foreseeable danger. In fact, he found solace and comfort here, even more so than when a god. No one knew where he was and no one pressured and nagged him to do his duty. He was beyond the reach of scrutiny and the constant criticism and disapproval he endured from those he deemed envious of his many gifts and talents. Now, here, next to this tiny stream, its innocent bubbling tranquilizing, in a jungle he knew nothing about, he felt free and protected. A temporary escape from the trauma of his current reality, he was to discover.
Putting the matter of the killing of all those people behind him--narcissism and a distinct lack of empathy having been among his more cherished characterisitcs--he was about to put a positive spin on his exile when a distant rumbling vibrated down his spine. Not even remotely aware of its source, but taking no chances, he closed his eyes and willed himself to be elsewhere, anywhere--walking his gardens back home--but the vibrations only intensified. He could hear tree limbs breaking and the violent scuffling of underbrush. Lying flat on the bank with high bushes on both sides of the narrow streamlet seemed like good cover. But, he thought, what if whatever is coming is coming this way? He listened intently as the cacophony drew closer, alarmed at the sound of heavy breathing. He tried to gauge the angle, but the crashing and labored grunts drowned out that possibility. A leaf floated by hurriedly as though it knew the proper recourse, he wished he were on it.
When the rapidly approaching whatever was practically on top of him, he stood to face it. Paralleling the brook, three massive horned behemoths raced by from left to right, unmindful or uncaring of his presence. Their grey bodies moved with a dexterity defying their size. And as quickly as they appeared, they were gone, engulfed by the jungle, the noise fading in pitch until silence returned, save for the birds and occasional loud discordant shrieking of some alien creatures.
He knelt again to drink, then dunked his head, pausing to listen to the muffled burbling. With adrenaline subsiding, the pang of hunger returned with renewed insistence. The positive spin he toyed with only moments ago vanished like the illusion it was, a hopeless and irrational pursuit. He'd been trying to fool himself, expecting the other gods to save him as they used to whenever he got into trouble. In fact, he'd always counted on it, believing they did it out of love and camaraderie. But now, he was on his own and he knew it. Food. Where?
He was about to take his first step when it suddenly dawned on him that the rampaging beasties who just flew by must be running from something far worse. Behind him lay the road of death. That leaves the way the panic-driven apparitions ran, whence they came, and straight ahead into the jungle. No choice there, he thought. Is this what destiny's all about? he mused as he stood waiting for his legs to move. Given alternatives, a person is reduced to taking the only rational path? Forced into it by conditions beyond his control? But surely if one is free to choose any possibility, that choice would be his destiny? But he was not free, he realized. In fact, it smelled to him like he was being channeled into a particular direction. Events were just too pat, too orchestrated, too coincidental.
He looked about for something to carry water in, but, except for large leaves, there was nothing. He drank his full and then determinedly strode into the dense forest, a stride that almost immediately turned into an arduous struggle. He fought for every meter, knowing his strength and stamina would not last much longer. Thirst crept up from the back of his throat and his stomach was tied in knots. He paused to catch his breath and wipe the sweat from his eyes. Barely visible splotches of pale blue sky lent a dim backdrop against which he saw something of color hanging from the branches of a strangely stunted and broad-leafed tree. When his eyes cleared and adjusted, he made out several, scattered at regular intervals, curving upward. Much shorter than the monsters surrounding them, they'd made a home for themselves on the hillock pushing up from the jungle floor.
He had no idea what they were, of course, but he knew fruit when he saw it. Forcing his way through the bordering brush, he climbed the knoll, the ground cover changing abruptly to long grass. Reddish-yellow and almost perfectly spherical, he picked one from a lower branch and without hesitation bit into it. Its succulent juices and sweet taste brought tears. He plucked a few and sat on the ground, his back against the smooth trunk of the tree. He glanced about, examining his find. The hill went on for a considerable distance before diving down on all sides into the unforgiving jungle.
He ate until he could eat no more, the juices quenching his thirst. Light was beginning to fade, night would soon be upon him. Reluctant to leave his orchard, he could in any event find no reason to do that. It felt safer and if need be, he could easily climb these trees, whereas the other type had their lower branches far too high to reach. Exhausted and dirty, but with a full belly, his body suddenly felt like lead. He pulled grass and stacked it into a bed, then as soon as he lay on it fell into a deep sleep.
He dreamed of floating with the clouds, his creations, his domain. Soft and fluffy, they buoyed him along, drifting ever so leisurely. Abruptly, his languor was interrupted by a distant muted rumbling. I didn't order that. How could this be? Who is doing it? How dare they? The raucous waves of heavy air grew louder and more discordant, a staccato of angry drumbeats. He stood on a cloud to peer in its direction. On the horizon coming towards him were three large grey shapes moving fast. When they got nearer and more distinct, he could see their massive hooves striking thick black clouds that appeared out of nowhere. They were heading right at him. He willed himself away but remained, helpless in the face of the onrushing stampede. He tried to bury himself in the cloud beneath him, but it resisted, refusing to grant entrance past its boundary. He was ostracized, on his own, lost.
He awoke with a start and sat up, sweat beading his forehead and wetting his back. Pushing against the tree, he scanned the darkness for moving silhouettes. Listening intently, he noticed that the whistles, cries, and screeches of night life appeared orchestrated, as though each creature took turn with occasional duets commanding center stage. He could detect nothing close by. He stayed that way, his back to the life-saving tree, relaxed yet alert until dawn began to creep up. Steamy mist rose from the upper branches of the great trees, filling the sky with whispy clouds. Fog settled on the woods below him, crawling up the hill like a melevolent beast. Being able to see was more of a relief than he would've imagined; night truly was terrifying. He was determined not to experience it again under these circumstances. The morning birds serenaded and raced about, oblivious of his presence, pecking at the fruit cores he'd strewn.
He had enough of the heat the previous day to realize it was best to start trekking early. He removedd his shirt and filled it with fruit, slung it over his shoulder and with a painful good-bye to his protective tree, stomped ahead through the bountiful orchard, casually picking and eating as he went. The going was easy through the short grass under the lower limbs, but he knew it wouldn't last, so relished his freedom of movement. The sun peeked over the horizon, spreading its dominating influence over his world. Climbing down the other side of the mound he noticed a trailhead. How far it would go he had no idea, of course, but he gladly took it anyway. Did he have a choice? he thought again, his suspicions returning. It widened shortly to several feet where it met the thick jungle bush; the grass caught him about mid-calf. On either side the canopy enclosed it, just letting in enough light to see properly. Listening for the frantic pounding of hooves or the marching of men--two things he'd learned sofar to be wary of--he chewed a piece of fruit and silently gave thanks to Melissa, goddess of fertility.
The road meandered through the dense forest; the sun rose ever higher, sending out wave after wave of sweltering heat. The sweetness of the fruit, at first a pleasure, started to work against him, drying up his fluids where before the juice had replenished. Water is what he needed. Curving around a bend in the road he heard the faint sounds of what he wasn't sure. People. Were they coming his way? He stopped to strain his ears, the constant backdrop of jungle noises faded away. No, he concluded. Could it be coming from that village he saw? Could he have walked that far? And in the right direction?
He cocked his head at the sound of a squeeky wheel. His first impulse was to run into the bush and hide as before, but he let it pass and held his ground. He stood in the middle of the road, bare-chested in dirty pants and sandals with a shirt of strange fruit slung over his shoulder. His face was probably dirty as well; he didn't know and didn't care. The squeeking increased in steps until a boy pulling a low cart turned the corner. He froze at the sight of Bob who smiled as he lowered his bag to the ground. Language. What language do I know? I haven't tried that yet. He began to explain himself and his predicament, especially his need for water, and was amazed at the sounds that came out of his mouth. The boy understood and smiled back, offering Bob a skin-full of water pulled from the cart. While Bob drank greedily, pausing to catch his breath after each long gulp, the boy told him he was off to the orchard to pick fruit for the village, a half-mile or so behind him. Bob returned the water, thanked him genuinely, handed him a piece of fruit, and passed on towards the village.
Right about this time one would expect Bob to be sideswiped by fate, knocked off balance, rendered suddenly helpless by the irony and vicissitudes of events. Another test of his resolve and will to survive. But no.
As he came closer to the village, the road widened, its sides manicured and grass cut low. Trees thinned out leaving space for straw-thatched huts on sticks. The village itself was scattered over two hillocks, and the road he walked the one and only. In the center of town several people were busy buying and selling goods, stalls lined both sides. Bob had never had to pay for anything, although he was aware from overseeing rain how much money could be exchanged because of him. But, if that was the case, he was out of luck. He saw a man reach into a pocket and instinctively followed suit. To his amazement, he pulled out a wad of folding cash. He had a hunch it was country-specific, and not knowing where on Earth he was, he had to just go for it. But he was in no mood to be denied. He'd had his full of fruit, knots formed in his somach. He wanted cooked meat and that was that.
Entering the marketplace people noticed him. How could they not? Several stopped to gander, eyes blank. Bob recognized that he was a stranger who'd just walked in from the jungle, and looking the way he did, couldn't expect less. He only hoped they didn't turn hostile as he was well aware humans tended to do for the most inexplicable reasons. He ignored the onlookers and strode to where food appeared to be cooking, steam rose above the stall. If they were going to kill him, he thought, it was going to be on a full stomach of something other than fruit.
Three backless wicker stools lined the front of it. He inspected pots simmering various things he knew not over a wood fire. Instinctively, he requested that and that--he pointed. With smiles the road chef quickly put together a bowl of rice over which he poured strips of browned meat and gravy. Bob paid him what he asked as though he'd been doing it all his life. He could see that he'd not been abandoned completely without resources. Fred and the others had fashioned this human shape, but also the means to interact with the populace. Had he been dropped elsewhere, he's sure the outcome would've been the same. At least, so far. He knew from vast personal experience how mischievous gods can be.
He sat and relished his first meal in exile. He couldn't remember when he'd tasted anything so delicious. All the hundreds of feasts and banquets he attended, never actually tasting the flavor and feeling the texture and smelling the aroma of the food so arduously prepared by the souls of those deemed worthy to live with the gods. Would he ever be that selfish and unappreciative again?
People around him stopped their stares. It was a marketplace, after all, one didn't interfere with strangers. Villages nearby often came to buy. It was his attire, or lack thereof. He finished eating, paid for a skin-full of water, then, to free up the chair, moseyed over to a bench braced against the wall of a nearby hut and sat to rest and digest, content for the moment. He took in the crowd, trying to gauge how to behave and to ascertain some idea where he might be on the planet. He could ask, but wouldn't that be suspicious? The money offered no clue, the name on it was meaningless. So if he asked where he was, he would be told that name, not what part of the world it was in. Bob had never cared about names of countries, he had no reason to learn them. Names change but the land-shapes remain the same for millions of years.
His area of expertise was weather, climate, winds, ocean currrents, heat, time of year, slant of sun, stuff like that. He understood how it all worked--the hydrologic cycle--how the many parts interacted interdependently as a whole system, and how each whole nested within larger ones. He understood the nonlinearity of it, how the chaos of turbulence, after passing a critical threshold of energy, resolved into a storm. He knew this and more and yet never applied it fully to help keep Earth and all its inhabitants in balance. Self-indulgence is a demanding mistress.
Was this the intention of his banishment? he mused. Or was this only the prologue to far deeper revelations? He thought to lie down on the bench, shaded under a short but leafy tree, its soft thick straw looked very inviting. However, he didn't want to wake at night with nowhere to go, even if the people whose house this was would let him sleep there. Maybe if he told them he was the god of rain, they'd be more than happy to offer him every convenience and extend every courtesy. Right. More than likely they'd drive him from the village with a barrage of his own fruit, blasphemous madmen are generally not received well.
An old woman came out of the hut, she'd seen him through a window. She asked if he was all right, he looked a bit tattered. He smiled and told her exactly what happened, except for the part where he magically appeared in the middle of a bunch of dead people. He said he was taking a short cut he'd been told about, mentioning the orchard as a landmark and that it was farther than it seemed, but he didn't say where to, not having any idea, of course. They chit-chatted and Bob got the lay of the land somewhat by listening to her complain about the towns and villages in the surrounding area. The roads were in disrepair and it was up to the locals to maintain them, and so forth. She welcomed someone to talk to, and Bob welcomed the opportunity. She mentioned the name of the closest large town, a name he forgot as soon as she said it, to which he stated as his destination. Her sympathy poured out; Bob didn't quite know how to take that. She went back into her hut and returned with a shirt, worn but clean, and a large bowl of water for him to wash his face, placing it on the bench beside him. When it stopped quivering, he looked into its still surface and for the first time saw how he appeared. At first he was stunned, then relieved. He looked like everyone else.
He had no way of knowing how far it was to this nearest town along the one and only road. She said a word that he understood as a measure of distance, but he was unable to translate it into any measurement he knew. With heartfelt thanks and an optimism and hopefullness that buoyed his spirit, though belied his situation, he ventured forth, fruit and a skin-full of water, a gift from the old lady, slung over his shoulder. He walked easy, constantly listening to the strange sounds of the forest, now considerably thinned out; he could see well into it. The air was warm but not as humid as the jungle border. Occasionally, he spotted more fruit trees and stopped to pick fresh ones; eating them more slowly than before. Everything was going wonderfully well, considering, which his suspicious side found unnerving. Perhaps they were waiting for his arrival in this town to push him into another direction? If, in fact, they were doing that. Too coincidental, he kept thinking. Of all the benches I could've sat on, I chose that one. Or did I?
He passed a boy herding goats and a man pulling a donkey laden with metal objects heading his way. Not having seen any other trails, he guessed they came from the village. The trip was otherwise uneventful, the weather luxurious; his human body enjoying the exercise, his muscles gaining strength with each mile. The road widened as he approached town, its edges furrowed to carry off excess water. Noise and clatter and the sounds of voices greeted him long before he saw any buildings. A broad high wicker gate of varying-sized branches marked the entrance. It was open and appeared as though it hadn't been closed for awhile; the jungle vines and weeds entwined it, securing every crack and crevice.
When he turned the final bend he was suddenly confronted by a large crowd milling about in an expansive open space; at its center was a well where people were busy filling jugs and other containers. In groups of twos and threes they stood about discussing and arguing. Bob walked right passed them, ignoring questioning glances. The road narrowed between two-story homes of wood with glass windows. People sat outside, some working on domestic projects, most standing or sitting around talking with one another. No one paid him any mind. As he closed in on the hub of town he noticed an improvement in the quality of the homes, the elaborate architecture and well-kept gardens marked a higher class of residents than those on the outskirts. Here, traffic was heavy and no one sat outside chit-chatting. People passing paid him no heed, but he could tell it wasn't out of politeness or preoccupation, although there was plenty of that. He sensed trepidation, anxiety. He wasn't as finely dressed, by any means, but something else about him inspired discomfort. He had no idea what but decided it was better than having people agressively hostile and threatening.
The road ended at the town square, a hundred meters on a side surrounded by government buildings. Reddish-brown bricks arranged in a criss-cross motif covered the ground, a wide fountain topped by a statue of someone the pigeons seemed fond of provided the centerpiece. People sat around its concrete border, others strolled leisurely through knots of folks engaged in animated discussions. An outdoor cafe beckoned, he obeyed. The menu was readable, another fortuitous surprise. He wondered if he might be able to read and speak whatever was necessary; he put finding out on his to-do list. He ordered tea and a bowl of rice and fish, then surveyed the situation, studying interactions and looking for patterns of behavior. He had no idea what to do next, he had no plan or strategy. Most of his time he'd spent on surviving, but now, in the big city, or one of them, he had to come up with something.
He ate leisurely as one does when one has nowhere to go. Once again refreshed, he sipped tea while scanning for his next move. Down a side road visible from where he sat he saw a sign that read Hotel. Exhaustion leadened his body, the food only deepening his need for sleep. He remembered the previous night he slept but little, sitting up on guard till daybreak. He paid his bill and throwing his shirt of fruit and water-skin over a shoulder walked to the hotel, noticing the agitation in a few of the conversations as he went, people poking fingers at one another, their faces grimacing anger.
The spacious lobby had a cafe to one side; couches and chairs were plentiful in the main room. Most people stood about in tiny knots or sat engaged in avid conversation, a few relaxed alone, reading or simply taking in the ambience. A bar extended along the windows facing the street, doing a brisk business. At its center a decorative crystal chandelier hung, columns of marble facade braced the golden-brown domed ceiling embossed with geometric designs. Side-tables conveniently placed held lamps, ashtrays, and vases of fresh flowers; coffee tables held magazines and bowls of petals. Thick print rugs, worn in spots, covered the smooth wood floor in strategic places. Fragrant air contrasted sharply with the dank foul odor of the dusty streets.
The clerk at the desk raised his eyebrows as Bob approached and stared in disbelief at his request for a room. Bob didn't know quite what to do with this; he stepped back, wondering if he was doing the right thing. With other interactions for which he had no prior experience, he recognized that he'd been supplied by the council with inherent knowledge of customs and protocols which, up to now, had stood him in good stead. Most importantly, he understood the power of money. He searched for clues, perhaps he was at the wrong desk or the clerk didn't understand him. As he looked about, he couldn't help but notice that the others in the lobby were extremely well-dressed, and not only that, at least half looked distinctly different from him. The word foreigner popped into his head along with its meaning, an idea Bob had never considered before or had to. But who was the foreigner?
Bob tried again, enunciating as clearly as possible. The clerk leaned forward and told him point blank that he should consider another hotel, one farther down the road away from the square. He could tell the man was attempting to be respectful, difficult as it seemed. Bob got the drift. This was a high class place and his kind was not welcome. Doesn't he know I'm a god? roared Bob to himself. But suddenly, he burst out laughing at his image in the broad wall-mirror behind the clerk. Hair discheveled, shirt obviously of peasant origins, with what was now a filthy rag containing fruit and a water-skin over his shoulder. He shook his head and laughed as he turned to head for the door and out onto the busy brick-covered street.
He moved away from the noisy square, seeking refuge in the more prosaic section of town. Fatigue marked his pace. Not far, the bricks changed over to hard dirt. A little beyond he encountered a small park of well-trimmed grass, leafy trees, and benches scattered here and there. He walked to the center where there was a small fountain, its soft cascade soothing; found an unoccupied bench, dropped his satchel on the ground, and lay down on its curved-plank seat, using his arm for a pillow. Within moments he was fast asleep.
He dreamed of his garden, the main one with the elongated pond, lilacs surrounded it. The smooth flat-stoned walkways passed every kind of flower imaginable, and some that weren't. He lay on his divan; beside him a goblet of wine and bowl of cherries sat on a circular, glass table, its spindly gold legs formed a symmetry of curvature, stemming from the table, meeting at the center, and then blossoming out to form a three-prong stand. With the warm morning sun shining down, the gold and glass combined to reflect everchanging patterns and shades of light off the cool blue-green surface of the pond.
As he was taking a sip of wine, Melissa, goddess of fertility, shimmered her resplendent presence onto the divan on the other side of the table. She smiled that smile of hers--you know the one--and Bob beamed back. Gesturing, a tiny invisible bell rang that brought a servant with more wine and a goblet of gold dotted with precious stones for Melissa, sumptuous queen of inspiration. The day was shaping up pretty good. Maybe later he'd think about putting clothes on.
Pain coursed his body, starting at his ribs. He awoke to the sight of two men standing over him; they were wearing uniforms like the ones he saw on the road of death; in their hands were what he assumed were weapons. He understood that; how, he didn't know, instinct perhaps, part of the human makeup, an important part. One yanked him to a sitting position and in the process tore his gift shirt at the shoulder. The other stood on his bag of fruit. They demanded papers, proof of identity. Bob didn't know what they were talking about--the council must've left that out of the manual--but he was sure he didn't have it. Whatever it meant, not having one was not an option. He lied and said he lost his proof of identity when he fell into a stream in the jungle. They laughed. Grabbing him by both arms, they led him to a large van at the edge of the park and threw him in. Several others were already inside. The door slammed, leaving them in total darkness. He spoke to the void, asking what was going on. They all confessed to not having identity cards for various reasons, a few actually sounding legitimate.
A quiet voice said he hoped they'd be taken to the local jail to be processed through the courts. If they could prove otherwise who they were by where they lived, all they would receive was a fine or minimal jail time, or both. Another disembodied voice, loud and gravelly, said he knew of a work project taking place further north building a dam. They needed labor and this is how they usually enlisted a workforce. Scouring the streets and parks looking for anyone in violation of law, any law. Either way, Bob knew he was screwed, another term that popped into his head unbidden.
The van sped off, blaring sirens as it went. Bob braced his back against the wall. He tried to think of what he could possibly do, but had nothing from which to draw, never having been arrested before. The shifting and hard smells of what could be anything sickened Bob; he feared he might vomit, but held on. Hunger once again gnawed at his stomach; hours must've passed. The hollow rumbling of the sheet-metal walls abruptly changed to bang and clatter as the van dropped without warning. One of his compatriots yelled above the din that they must be on the country road heading north. No one reacted to the news; Bob guessed they must've expected it. The rough and tumble ride continued unabated. Bob couldn't help it, he threw up, and so did others. The stench intensified with the miles, cooked by the suffocating heat. Bob lay on his side on the deck and discovered faint cool air oozing in from a crack under the doors. Numb from nausea and the unrelenting beating from the ruined road, he desperately tried to stay conscious.
He thought it couldn't get any worse; he was wrong.
The van slowed, eventually coming to a stop, its motor revving hot. Bob gasped, the air flow had ceased. Incoherent harsh voices vibrated through the walls, the metal adding its own peculiar and non-human timbre to the mix. The blackness now seemed comforting, he wanted to melt into it and tried in vain to will just that. Presently, they pulled away, driving slowly. The terrain was similar, but the speed made it relatively painless. Minutes passed. Yelling from nearby on the ground preceded an abrupt stop, the van screeched, the raucous engine died. The dark silence fell like a hammer of doom. The doors swung open, several uniformed men and one wearing a long skirt greeted them. They were ordered out where they were kicked to the ground. The man in the skirt inspected each. He waved at five, including Bob, and the last he gestured at dismissively; he was taken away. Rather insistently, the guards prodded them with their weapons, what Bob now realized must've been the long sticks carried by the other uniforms on the road of death.
They were herded to an outdoor enclosure bounded by a high, pole-fence topped by barb wire; they were shoved inside. Dozens of men milled about; blankets, small bowls, and piles of clothes were scattered here and there. Uniforms escorted them to the other side of the huge camp. There, a table held folded blankets and bowls with sticks for utensils; they each were given a set. The soldiers then simply walked away, leaving them to their own devices.
Bob peeled off from his companions who opted to stay together; ad hoc groupings formed that way in an atmosphere such as this. He stood still to scan his predicament while simultaneously searching his store of local human knowledge for any helpful advice; an actual solution, as in a course of action, proved too much to ask for. The expression up the creek broached the surface of his muddled mind. Deep shit was another one. How quaint, he mused. In light of his current circumstances, he needed no help inferring their meaning and significance.
It was late afternoon; men were coming and going. The ones reentering didn't look so good, thought Bob. He found a vacancy over by the far corner and lay down on his blanket, pleased beyond measure to be out of the van. He thought death had been near and wondered what would happen in that case. He hadn't given it serious thought until now; now seemed like an appropriate time.
He'd been stripped of his godly powers and his enduring spirit infused into and made one with the body of a man. Consequently, even though he maintained an objective view, he acted on human instincts and characteristics. His natural abilities and talents had yet to be fully plumbed and explored, put to the test. Thus far, he'd learned of his considerable stamina and will to survive, but not much more.
His former godly awareness encompassing the concentric shells of consciousnes from the godly realm down to that of human and the lowliest of lifeforms had been greatly curtailed. His perception was now constrained to a human universe, events were filtered through that medium. The mental constructs describing reality, though unfamiliar initially, he quickly processed and incorporated into a picture that was building in complexity with each new experience. He presumed the council had instilled not only knowledge, but also a proclivity for certain questions. Or perhaps not, perhaps given the basic tools it was supposed he'd be inspired to use them to formulate the right questions, difficult questions having to do with the nature of reality, human reality, by the desperateness of his situation.
He saw that his reactions were completely unpredictable and open-ended, thus far. In a flash of insight he understood that ordinary people were trained to react a certain way. Moreover, based on assumptions, people saw what they expected to see, intricate details were often overlooked. Their daily reality had a definite structure to it, inherited through generations, supported by language and imbued by culture. Through this, or by means of this, they went about their lives, believing what they'd been taught to be the way life is. He realized that his only freedom centered on controlling reactions by resisting imposition of the way life is. He had no intention of submitting to any fabricated reality. It was a mental attitude he was determined to engender and apply whenever necessary. He wanted to be able to step out of the moment and act in a most unpredictable manner; it was his only advantage. Other than that, he had no plan for getting out of the mess he was in. It was a confounding world which he was only beginning to flesh out.
Hunger and fatigue were all he knew, that and several bruises from the ride. He saw a line of people with bowls in hand queued up at the rear of the enclosure. Rising to his feet with the help of the fence, he shuffled over to it. The server plopped a dollop of white rice into it, nothing more. He looked inquisitively at the uniform with the scoop who told him none too pleasantly that his next meal would be tomorrow. Bob made it back to his blanket where he devoured the tasteless rice in three shovels of the sticks. He used a finger to wipe and lick the bowl which he then tossed aside. Depression wrestled with a growing anger. If only he possessed his godly powers for the briefest of time, he reflected, all these uniforms would suffer and the people here given a feast the likes of which would go down as legend.
He'd been there for less than an hour and already had decided to escape by any means. But first, he needed to know the lay of the land. His prison mates were familiar with the countryside, they knew where they were and what villages or cities were near. Gaining their confidence became paramount if he wished to avoid another pell-mell hike through the jungle, slogging along in what he imagined, at any rate, was straight ahead. It's easy to get turned around in a jungle or forest, especially when the canopy shields the sun. Besides, straight ahead may be the worse way to go.
Dinner time over, the prisoners lay down in the open. This high up in the hills, the night would be chillier than last, thought Bob. The sun dipped below the distant mountain peaks, darkness descended rapidly. He wrapped himself in his blanket, a luxury compared to the previous night, and scoured his mind for a plan, but he had little to base one on. His experience with vehicles had not been encouraging; he wondered if he'd been gifted with the knowledge to drive one. That would be a plus. He would have to wait until he knew more about what was going on, to get outside the encampment.
He stared at the stars, their brilliance almost painful. The galaxy stretched across the sky in all its glorious milkiness. He'd never seen it from this perspective before. When he was amongst them he'd taken their appearance for granted; not now, however. The contrast with total darkness framed them in a way that conjured images and inspired curiosity, a desire to understand their natures.
His dreams were wracked with bits and pieces of nightmarish encounters with demons and hostile beasts. He tossed and turned. With his godly powers, he vanquished them all, but it'd been stressful. There was no lolling about in the sun with Melissa, no pleasant fragrances from his gardens, no wine to forget the responsibilites of his office. A bad feeling crept into his psyche; recent events made their presence known. In his dream state, he thought again of death. What would happen if he let himself be killed? Was that a secret door out of this hellhole? Were the other gods watching, betting on whether or not he'd figure it out?
He awoke with a jab of pain, a guard stood over him. Hunger weakened his response. Prisoners were being rounded up, he along with them, and marched out at a brisk pace. The damp air chilled his bones, but he found it invigorating nonetheless. Some strength returned as he strove to keep up; he saw how others were beaten who lagged behind. A half-mile or so along the bank of a stream he came to where the dam was under construction. Trees cut down were trimmed and bucked before placement in the fast-moving water. A bridge ran across and from it short logs were lowered with ropes to workmen on another bridge near the stream's surface. These were dropped into position and braced by others at a 45 degree angle. Then the horizontal logs were knotched to one another and dropped behind the braces, upstream. Large rocks were deposited at the base of the braces in a hit or miss fashion. The whole operation looked dangerous as hell to Bob, unfamiliar as he was with actual work.
He watched in fasination at the skill and deftness of those at the business end, leading the inexperienced crews with orders and directions. His reverie was interrupted by a uniform shoving him forward to a pile of rocks. Along with several others, he was ordered to move them to the opposite bank, across the lower bridge, maneuvering around those positioning logs, to be handed to those standing at the edge of the stream, braced against the flow. The makeshift bridge was extremely narrow. Because of their weight, he had to use both hands to carry them, and so couldn't use the rope handhold to maintain balance. After his first crossing, he was exhausted; yet, somehow, he managed to plod on.
His mind was elsewhere, his body acted independently of thought. He wondered if the others were experiencing this ordeal in the same way. Their eyes looked dead to him. They were used to such labor, he thought. Somehow they found reserves to go on, day after day, forcing themselves to put one step in front of the other. A life thrust upon them, toiling under fear of death. Nothing could be done about it, it was their lot.
At mid-day he caught a break and lay down in the grass near the forest edge, gazing at the bright blue sky, savoring the warm mountain air, feeling aches in unfamiliar muscles. Guards were everywhere, there was no hope of escape into the jungle. He recalled his fight through it and mused that maybe escape into it wouldn't be much of one. He sat up to take in the surrounds, watching the workers and especially how the guards interacted with one another. Most seemed disgruntled with their assignment as though simply standing around with weapons was burdensome. Some joked, making the most of it. Generally, Bob deduced, they appeared less than alert, arrogant, their command of the situation a certainty, and uncaring of the welfare of the laborers; in fact, laughing and then getting annoyed when someone was injured. How long was he expected to do this? he wondered. And what would happen when his services were no longer required?
As a guard gestured for him to get back to work, a commotion downstream drew the guard's attention. Staccato gunfire ripped the quiet, birds squawked and chittered as they fled the trees. Uniforms shouted questions and then ran in that direction, leaving him and his cohorts unattended. With little hesitation, they headed into the jungle. Bob was tempted to follow but something held him. He wanted to know who was attacking. If they were successful, maybe he'd be safer with them than crashing through the dense unforgiving woods. The dam builders dropped what they were doing and scrambled across the bridges to the opposite side, not stopping when they hit the jungle's edge. Bob chose to stand his ground, alone; the uniforms were around the bend out of sight. Safety led away from the shooting, even he knew this, but he also felt an overriding sense of security being on his own. He could only guess that it was his nature now, or perhaps it was a holdover from his days of living by his own rules. Either way, he'd already learned to listen to his human instincts, gut feelings that demanded attention; if, indeed, the source was actually human. He retired to the treeline where he hid to watch.
Gunfire and angry shouts intensified, coming closer. He lay in the high grass and covered himself with leaves and branches, the pungent odor of molding underbrush filled his nostrils. Three soldiers ran in his direction; he held his breath, wishing to be invisible. As one, they fell under heavy fire. The attackers swarmed towards the dam; they were dressed in regular clothing but carried weapons similar to those of the guards. Bob thought to stand and wave his arms, yelling that he was a prisoner, but feared they might react out of caution and gun him down.
Abruptly, quiet filled the air. Around the bend a woman approached. The others spoke to her with deference, reporting all clear. She told them to collect weapons and ammunition. They quickly withdrew around the bend, leaving her alone to examine the partially-finished dam. He took a chance and stood, one foot ready to run. With arms high, he stepped out from his hiding place and walked slowly towards the woman. A twig cracked underfoot, she swiftly spun, weapon raised, and shouted for him to stop. He obeyed, keeping his arms up. He explained his situation as well as he understood it, the kidnapping at the park, the sickening ride, the bowl of rice, hoping she and her men were here to free them. She lowered her weapon and waved him forward. Relief coursed through his body as he shuffled towards her.
She asked his name and tribe. He started to say Bob, a simple one-syllable sound, but was astounded at what came out of his mouth instead--Ramajani. What trick is this, he thought. Did his cover include other like surprises, beneficial as they may be? His physical appearance and language matched the locale, as did the money in his pocket, these and others he hadn't noticed were fortuitous and unexpected. He'd been banished from the godly realm, but had not been left entirely without recourse. For that he was grateful and did not feel completely abandoned because of it, someone was watching. This was a test, a lesson, a journey he must endure and learn from. He hoped. On the other hand, it could very well be nothing more than part of his severance package.
As he approached, she asked if he was from such-and-such a tribe. He had no idea what she meant, of course, but nodded agreement nevertheless. When he got up close he froze, gaping at her beauty; he couldn't help it. The contrast of rough clothing--tight leather leggings, shirt open at the neck revealing taut, glistening skin, calf-high boots--hair braided into one thick luxurious black cord hanging halfway down her back, and the deadly weapon in her strong supple hands struck a chord in Bob he'd never known before, in spite of all the goddesses he'd been familiar with over the eons. The sight and sound of the turbulent stream behind her lent a vigorous energy and sultry wildness to her strong features and fiery eyes. He strove for objectivity, it was his way of gaining control of a situation, but it was useless. Rationality had nothing to do with here and now; emotions stirred, strong emotions. She introduced herself as Nalina, commander of her group from the so-and-so tribe. To Bob, the tribal names held no meaning, but thinking it important in a life-saving way to know who the friendlies were, made a note of them anyway.
She glanced once more at the dam, then began walking down the bank; Bob followed like a puppy, wishing only to be near. When they turned the bend he blanched at the sight. Bodies lay strewn everywhere, a few were hung-up on rocks in the stream. Men were tearing down the fence of the enclosure, the barracks of the uniforms burned hotly, a van lay on its side in the stream, its engine steaming vapor. He hoped it was the one that brought him here. Former prisoners sat in the grass eating food given to them by their rescuers. Bob hurried towards them, hunger eating a hole in his stomach. He was handed something reddish-brown that he didn't hesitate to stuff into his mouth. He relished its rich meaty flavor, strength and clarity increased with each bite.
He sat cross-legged with the others, blending in. Trucks commandeered from the now dead guards lined up in single file on the wide bank. Bob counted about a hundred men and women among their saviours. They were each dressed in clothing of his or her own choosing, some wore bright pieces of cloth around their head and colorful shirts, not what one might expect from a force trying to seek camouflage in the jungle. It was a sign to Bob of something holding significance that nagged him but would not surface.
Nalina stood nearby with two men discussing whether or not to blow-up the dam. They decided because it was only half finished the coming monsoons would take it out. Why waste dynamite? He and his fellows were told to load up in the second and third open trucks. The rescuers packed the others. Nalina sat in the seat next to the driver in the lead truck. Bob wondered how they'd gotten there on foot. Through the jungle? Up the road? He couldn't guess. They drove by the main gate, two men lay dead beside the guardhouse, their throats cut.
He could see where they'd come now. The road ran beside the river and was indeed a deeply rutted mess of potholes. Why didn't they fix this instead of building a dam that didn't seem to serve any purpose? he wondered. The water would back up and flood the jungle killing vast areas of trees. What was the point? Cutting off and regulating waterflow downstream? Who would that affect? It had to do with control and power, he could smell that much; he was quite familiar with power plays.
About ten miles along they stopped. Bob cautiously poked his head over the cab thinking they'd run into uniforms coming the other way. But what he saw amazed him. The driver stretched his arm out the window; in his hand he held a black box half the size of his palm. He pressed a button and the short trees, maybe twenty feet high, and brush levered in like a gate. In fact, it was a gate. He could see that the ground was what was moving, the thin, tightly-grouped trees and foliage were tied down with wire and rested on a sheet or slab of something or other. They looked exactly the same as those on either side, fresh and alive. They must be periodically replaced, he thought, or maybe they weren't even real.
Behind it a side road cut into the jungle. Because of its narrowness, the canopy darkened the grassy path forcing them to turn their lights on. However, their speed didn't diminish; if anything, they drove faster. The reason became clear when they turned a bend; a steep incline lay before them. Through breaks in the overhanging branches he could see the snow-covered peaks of mountains. With each mile the air cooled ever so noticeably. Bob wished he'd had the foresight to grab his blanket, his thin shirt was not going to cut it. He hunkered down in close quarters with the others; strangely pleased that they too felt the cold.
At some point, the road flattened out, the trucks slowed. Horns honked up and down the line. He jumped to his feet. Off in the distance he saw thatched huts similar to those in the village he came through, then along the road, several wooden buildings sat amidst yellowish broad-leafed trees, their tops protectively shading them. People were rushing towards them with smiling faces, cheering. The trucks pulled onto a broad flat area where other vehicles were parked and came to a halt. Everybody piled out. As he watched from the truck, the two groups merged. Their hugs and kisses and slaps on the back puzzled him. Such joy and congratulations at the killing of the uniforms; they must be sorely hated, he thought.
He climbed out and sought Nalina. She was conversing with an older man dressed rather formally in colorful robes. She took his arm and together they walked towards a large house at the center of the row. He had no idea what to do. One of the fighters informed him that food could be obtained at the last building up the road. He decided to take things one step at a time. Food, of course, that had to be first. A full belly might trigger an idea or two. Another item was something warm to wear; the chill mountain air combined with the weariness of his body and hunger caused him to shiver uncontrolably in spasms. His arms and legs were cramping up, he felt awful. He needed a respite and decided he wasn't going anywhere soon, unless, of course, they forced him to.
As he shuffled along, an old woman hurried up to him. She carried a short coat of some animal hide with a fur lining and offered it to him, saying that she noticed his trembling. She looked remarkably like the woman in the village who'd given him his shirt. He thanked her profusely and continued on his way, pulling the jacket tight around him, relishing its soothing warmth and earthy smell. Walking past the house Nalina had entered, he tried in vain to catch a glimpse of her through the open windows. Another word popped into his head--smitten. During his godly reign, he'd never been smitten or anything close to it. Always he maintained his distance, enjoying the pleasures goddesses had to offer, but not letting anyone get under his skin. How can he feel thus? he asked himself, a trifle alarmed. And she a mere mortal. He reminded himself that now, he too was human, a mere mortal, and was experiencing this new world as such.
He sat at a long, communal table eating fish, rice and some greens. He went back to the kitchen area for seconds, they obliged cordially. A large pot of green tea sat on a metal stand at the center of the table, a candle under it kept it warm. The building, open on all sides, was enclosed by screens. Columns placed every several feet supported the slightly angled thatched roof. The room could hold dozens of people. The other ex-laborers sat about talking and enjoying the hospitality, happy to be free of the nightmare they just endured. Across from him three rather rough men discussed the proposition offered them. Bob easedropped. Joining the fighters of this enclave would ensure a steady round of food, and also would give them the opportunity to get back at the uniforms. They called them by some tribal name, but, except to note it for future reference, he didn't care. To him they were the enemy, evil and worthy of contempt and even death.
That's it, he realized. Join these fighters here in this safe haven and be close to Nalina. He had to laugh. He had no home, no clothing, and very little money. He was a nobody, a peasant, an insignificant being lost in a sea of insignificant beings in this land of strife and misery. The image of the pile of dead where he first entered this realm flashed in his mind. That and his recent ordeal, brief though it'd been, evoked an anger he'd seldom known as a god. Then, anger emanated from without, intertwined with the forces he controlled with which he identified as one; now, however, in this human form, it rose from within, visceral and focused. He surrendered to it, accepted it, sure that it would carry him through the dangers as a fighter. They made it personal, that was a mistake.
But he knew nothing of their weaponry. As god of rain, he had lightning bolts and storms at his disposal, and heavy dark ominous clouds to squelch the spirits of the nonbelievers. He had to learn. He asked those across from him who to talk to about joining up. They stared, incredulous, then one with a smirk on his face gave him the name of Nalina's officers. He recalled the two men she conferred with about blowing up the dam. He finished his tea and with a spring in his step, ignoring the pain of his muscles, left to find one of them. Again he passed by the house where Nalina had gone and felt a longing that ate at his insides. The men were gathered around a bonfire, drinking and talking amiably. He found one of the officers and approached. He offered to join their forces, acknowledging that he was inexperienced with their weapons but was willing and ready to learn. The officer looked him up and down, especially lingering at his worn sandles. Presently, he responded kindly that first he should get some decent boots and a clean pair of pants, ones with fewer holes. The others around him laughed good-naturedly. He led him away to a small hut some meters into the forest and invited him in. Furnishings included four bunks, a dresser, and one round table set off to a side. Except for the area covered by a small print rug in the middle, the floor was hard dirt, a stout pole stood at its center supporting the circular roof. Pillows rested on the rug for sitting, there were no chairs. The officer dropped a pair of boots at his feet and told him to try them on. He rummaged through a drawer and pulled out a pair of pants which he threw in Bob's direction. He scrutinized Bob, then told him he obviously needed rest and offered a bunk. With that, he left.
Gratefully, Bob removed his jacket and lay down, pulling a blanket over him. Overstressed and overtired, he stared at the ceiling, a network of rattan so tightly intertwined that no light shone through. The distant sounds of music and laughter wafted through the open doorway. He felt safe for the first time, he'd found a place to recoup. A chance event to be sure, or was it? Settling down, his body relaxing in stages, sleep finally drew him in, to which he willingly surrendered.
He dreamed he was inside a massive house, a castle perhaps. How he knew of its size is part of the mystery of dreamland. It was overstuffed with furniture and personal belongings, none of which he recognized. Things laid strewn about the floors; objects, statuettes and manuscipts fought for space on the jumbled shelves that ran from floor to ceiling. He walked from room to room and wing to wing, searching for his identity papers. He knew they were here somehwere. He became frantic, worried. No light shone in, no windows appeared anywhere. He had to find proof of his identity, and then he must leave. But how? No doors were visible. Surely there must be at least a front door, he thought. As he hurried along, tearing apart boxes and opening drawers, people began to appear, people he didn't know. They seemed to know him however and endeavored to attract his attention, to talk to him as he passed, but he gave them no heed. He was on an urgent mission.
New wings with a multitude of rooms off to their sides kept appearing as well. Disorder was everywhere and increased as he went; yet the people, their numbers growing, didn't seem to care. They simply walked around or over the disarray. Some items caught his attention and he stopped to examine them; they brought back memories from long, long ago. Memories of a life lived for its own sake, but now scattered and meaningless, discarded, unimportant. He continued to search, feverish, tripping over things on the rugs, climbing what looked like the same stairway over and over. More people showed up, detached, self-absorbed, only triflingly aware of his presence and completely indifferent to his purpose and obvious dire distress. No one offered help. Fear gripped his heart; amidst the turmoil of so much stuff and places for it to be, he felt hopeless. He'd never find it. Pandemonium reverberated throughout the monstrous dwelling intensifying his desperation and frazzling his resolve. He stopped moving in the middle of a particularly spacious room complete with wraparound balcony. People gaped down at him, some smiling, others with a mean look in their eyes. He spun, taking in the chaos; lightheaded by the effort, he felt he might swoon. People on the balcony cheered him on, but to what end?
Abruptly, he sat up, sweat dripped down his face and back even though the doorway and windows were open to the crisp night air. Breathing deeply, the dream still in his head, he shook to free himself of its suffocating hold. Images stretched, deformed, tore apart, then bled away, becoming mere streaks of color draining down a hole in space. He scanned the room, forcing himself into reality. In the dim moonlight he saw that the other bunks were occupied. He rose quietly to step outside. All was still, the bonfire a pile of smoldering cinders; three men sat tendering it, talking softly, passing a bottle around. The half-moon gave just enough light to see nearby huts nestled under trees. Candle light here and there flickered through open windows creating an otherworldly atmosphere of peace and serenity the likes of which he'd not experienced thus far. He expected to see sprites on the wing and tiny gnome-like creatures scurrying about. Relaxed, he returned to bed and wrapped the blanket around him. He had no more dreams that night, at least none he remembered.
A month of rigorous training for him and the other ex-laborers who elected to stay had sharpened his senses and tuned his body. Moreover, he discovered that he was an excellent marksman; the weapon of choice becoming quite comfortable in his hands. He could take it apart and put it back together in minutes. Hand-to-hand combat proved more difficult, but he was determined to master it as well, and to his delight learned that this body the gods had bestowed was more athletic and stronger than he anticipated. He'd alredy knew of its stamina. Occasionally, he came in contact with Nalina who he thought of as goddess of war. Each encounter left him stammering; he felt like a childish fool. When a god, he'd never known shyness or constraint by protocol. He spoke his mind and did as he pleased. Reflecting on this self-indulgent behavior from his human perspective, he had to acknowledge it had something to do with his banishment. Arrogance may have been his trademark, stupidity wasn't.
The ambience of the village worked to set his mind in a particular direction, fostering clarity and purpose and an incipient moral compass, something he was completely without previously. He'd been accepted and felt a sense of fellowship he never knew amongst the other gods. And his name--Ramajani--at first somewhat disconcerting to hear, with time and repetition the melodious way they spoke it pleased him. After a day's training exercise, he would stroll about, visiting those he'd become friends with, eating at their table, or wander the woods, stopping to enjoy the chirping, tweeting, and melodious songs of unseen birds and the howls and screeches of mysterious animals. He watched the children play, oblivious of the dangers and suffering out there in the world. Such innocence, he couldn't remember when he felt that.
At times when he wanted to think and reflect, he'd leave the village proper to sit on his favorite moss-covered boulder and immerse himself in the jagged mountains far to the west, the snow on their tops almost melted away, until the sun dropped behind. He never tired of watching the shades of yellow and orange transmute into vermillion and blood red, then blend together in a moving, liquid, spotted swirl. He had to hand it to Fred--good show.
Afterwards, the soft breeze on his face, lightly rustling his hair, twilight throwing drawn-out shadows behind every tree and rock, he'd amble back to the hut he shared with two others. He watched his own shadow as it shifted and undulated over the ground, a novelty he'd never seen before and a testament to his earthly existence. He was beginning to feel less a prisoner trapped in a mortal body and more like a human with human sensibilities and emotions. These were dream-like times; he knew it wouldn't last, couldn't. That much he understood.
Nalina's presence was like a force of nature for which he had no defense; it overwhelmed him and he willingly allowed it to. He savored it like fresh cool wine or the fragrant, morning air. Pride no longer mattered; he wished only to do her bidding, to be at her command, to inhabit her world. She would smile sweetly at his fluster, aware of its cause. The gulf between them however had not diminished; leastwise he believed it so.
One day, after a round of shooting practice, she sought him out. She told him she'd been informed by her officers that he was a natural fighter and had the best eye of anyone among the new recruits. She was going on a reconnaissance mission into the heart of enemy territory. The village council, with her advice, planned a major assault on their main base of operations in this sector, the hub of their influence from where they sent out raiding parties on surrounding villages, capturing slaves to do their work, killing those deemed unworthy. She meant to destroy it, an act she was sure would break their backs and turn the tide.
They sat outside his hut on wicker chairs he helped build, no small matter to him. She asked him how he was getting along; he told her of his enjoyment at being here, the friends he made, the boulder he favored for watching the sunset, and the many forest creatures he came to love. He was about to tell her of his feelings, but choked on the words. Intuitively, she got the message and turned to him with the most beautiful smile he'd ever seen. She took his hand and spoke his name; he thought he would die right there on the spot. She suggested they go for a walk in the woods, she knew a secret place where a tiny brook ran through flowering shrubs. He was beside himself with joy, giddy as a child. He tried to restrain it, fighting for some measure of self-possession, but it was hopeless.
In the month he'd spent living and training there, they would often cross paths and cordially exchange greetings; he, of course, being a new recruit and she the commander, his was more formal; although he couldn't help the twinkle in his eye. Now they were off together, just the two of them, walking to her secret place in the jungle, perhaps where she prepared herself before missions, or only to get away from it all. Bob saw this as a definite change in the weather; optimism fueled him.
As they walked, he noticed he was identifying with his immediate surroundings in a way that invigorated him, as though a film or boundary of separation had melted away, everything appeared more vivid and real. On the path, bounded by tiny white flowers bunched together and only a few inches tall, he could see the smallest detail of twigs and leaves, of every bump and groove and furrow, and of the myriad shapes of stones embedded in the brownish-green soil, their edges and smooth curves, unique to each, glistened where light touched them. The massive broad-leafed trees, moss growing on one side of the trunks and lichen hanging from branches like clothing or hair, drew him in with a soft embrace. The shafts of light filtering through the canopy lent a richness of color and texture and contrast of brightness and shade, and above, patches of deep blue sky poked through here and there proclaiming fair weather.
The hidden brook reminded him of the one he stumbled across his first day on Earth. It also brought back memories of horrendous beasts thundering and crashing through the jungle, almost running him over. Alarmed momentarily, he quickly scanned the area. They sat in silence for a time, listening to the burbling over stones and smelling the sweetness of the bush. Her proximity electrified him, quickening his heartbeat. Consciously, he brought it under control, afraid she might hear its loud thumping.
She spoke of her home far to the east and her upbringing, attending school and games played with the other children in her village, remote and apparently safely removed from the strife in the lowlands. But this idyllic life came to an end one summer day when she was a teenager. Uniformed men in helicopters attacked her village. He'd not yet seen a helicopter, but surmised by her tale that it came from the sky. No one had any weapons, only machetes and knives. They were slaughterd, the healthy men taken away for a work project, the young women, herself included, brought to their encampment; all others, the old and the children, were killed and the homes burned. She stared forlornly at the streamlet and threw a twig into it. He now had a glimpse of the source of her passion and ruthlessness and tried to think of something to say to bring her back, but instead touched her hand.
Immediately, she raised her head and smiled. She asked of his life, where he came from and how he managed to be in the labor camp. Telling her he'd been an immortal god who dwelt in a timeless realm didn't seem appropriate. He lied and told her he came from the one and only village he knew, but the rest was true, or almost true, that one day, on a whim, he ventured into the town where he was taken into custody. He'd somehow lost his identity papers and was found sleeping on a bench in the park. He described the miserable ride to the labor camp, which now he could laugh at, temporal distance and present circumstance mitigating the memory. He told her it was his first day there when she and her force attacked and rescued him.
She asked if he had a woman waiting for him back in his home village; he nodded no and managed to appear somber by the admission. He overdid it; she mocked his affectation with feigned sympathy, pushing his shoulder. They laughed, a quite innocent laugh that filled his heart with elation. It was her turn; he waited but didn't press. Birds trilled intricate convoluted songs up and down the music spectrum; monkeys called and howled; insects buzzed and flew around them, inspecting, curious, then off again, busy as hell.
After a time, she told him this village raided their camp, killing all the soldiers. She and other women who had no home to return to were invited here. Those who'd been raped--she didn't say if she had--insisted on learning how to fight and so joined the ranks of the fighters here, swelling the numbers significantly and bringing a much needed balance. She trained hard and constantly, rising in leadership.
One rainy night she and a small force were reconning a command post in the midst of the jungle when things went horribly wrong. A government patrol came up behind, hiking along the path they'd used, surprising her unit, pinching them between the post and the patrol. The commander was killed and all hell broke loose, her people were on the verge of panic, losing track of one another in the heavy rain and thick bush. The handful of men and women looked to her; she gathered them and led all to safety, sneaking through the enemy's ragtag line and back home. She was smart, cunning, and resourceful, and because of that, her skill with weapons, and her understanding of tactics, she became the new commander. Most importantly, she cared and would not leave anyone behind. That was three years ago.
He wanted to ask if she was with someone; he'd seen her with men, soldiers, but hoped it was only friendships, comrades who fought and risked their lives together. But he feared the answer so took the coward's way out and didn't bring it up. He expected she might be with someone, but then, why this?
Bob threw a twig into the streamlet while they sat in silence enjoying each others company, the interlacing sounds of the forest, the perfect temperature, and the respite from the day-to-day of the village. His mind wandered to thoughts of his gardens, the complex arrangements of flowers and fruit-bearing trees, the marble trails carefully chosen for effect, weaving through and interconnecting the varying types of garden and meeting at the many ornamental stone fountains. They were well-ordered, perfect in symmetry and design, a quality which always afforded him a profound comfort; a sense of intent pervaded that world. Nothing like this uproarious wildness with its cacophony of noises and random activity. It took some getting used to, and when he had, he found its openendedness and brash refusal to submit to rules other than nature's strangely liberating. Its heart was spontaneity and its body a manifestation of the possible. Earth had a will of its own, he learned.
She spoke of the upcoming recon patrol, how many people she'd take. She wanted him among them. He asked when and she replied as soon as the monsoons arrived, long overdue. Bob wondered who'd taken over his old job; whoever seemd to be shirking it. People were dependent on a regular pattern to occur on time. He blushed at the thought, recalling how often he'd been preoccupied with personal indulgences and ignored his duties. She noticed his distress and asked about it. He shook his head, saying it was just a fleeting memory of someone he used to know, now gone. He smiled to himself, recognizing the truth of it.
A frog croaked loudly nearby, hidden from view. Then another further downstream. They called back and forth, taking turns as though engaged in conversation. Nalina smiled and said one word in her softest of voices--lovers. They rose and strolled a different trail back to the village, saying nothing, simply enjoying the ambience of the forest and one another's company. Bob promised himself that on this mission he would do what he could to protect her, then smiled to think that if anything, she'd be doing the protecting.
When they reached the village well, she told him she had a meeting of strategy with the elders to attend in the big house. Bob's mind was a scramble of words none of which found his mouth. Again, she got the message and leaned forward to kiss him lightly on the cheek. His heart raced, the smell of her intoxicating. She slapped him on the shoulder, laughed and departed. He stood and watched her walk away, wanting to run after her and tell her of his love, pour out his heart, take her in his arms and kiss her firmly on the mouth. But he had not the boldness; he needed certainty which, he knew, would come, or not, only with a taken risk. Immobile, he chastised himself for his cowardness, but decided to take it slowly. It was too great a prize to jeopardize with what might be perceived by her as overreaching, even impudence. He'd bide his time and wait for the right opportunity, the unambiguous moment, if it ever comes.
He was too fidgety to go home. The sunset was near so he went to his mosss-softened boulder to think. When a god he perceived human emotions like anger, fear, love from a great distance. He used to see each in general as a flat, featureless plain, but now he understood the uncountable nuances and fine strands contained within, and within those even finer filaments. And each separate thread affected by sets and subsets of others in complicated intractable ways, making the outcome of expression unpredictable and impossible to discern.
Moreover, some were more important or meaningful than others. Anger had many shades as did fear, with which he was familiar. Fear of the beasts rampaging through the woods threatening to crush him underfoot, and fear of being shot by a stray bullet were of a quality dramatically different from the fear of expressing tender feelings for another person. There was physical fear and emotional fear and each was composed of subtle, inherent divisions. And what of love? Its components were like branches stemming from a braided trunk interweaving confidence and loyalty, pleasure and pain, security and, yes, fear of loss, rejection.
In the beginning he resisted and resented his humanity with all its accompanying attributes, its weaknesses and limitations. He was disgruntled about being exiled and refused to comply. And his early experiences served to reinforce his discontent. But since then he turned towards this life and away from negative, debilitating, depressing emotions and states-of-mind. In so doing he recognized that this acceptance had a curious influence on his sense of freedom and strength of will, on his control of the outcome of future events. It wasn't fullproof or meant to be, but without his active participation, he'd be subject to the whim of circumstance. He had purpose; others counted on him, not just to perform a job, but to share in the goals and to support the lifestyles of the entire community of which he was now a part. Entanglement and belonging caught him off-guard, snuck up and took possession of his soul.
He appreciated his human form as an organ of knowing, going out to the world to experience the physical dimension openly, albeit not without caution, and the more intimately he delved, the more confident he became. He was an explorer in an unknown land; it kept him on his toes. Emotionally, he partook of friendship and empathy, of enjoyment in the company of others, feeling the full force of familial support. To him, now, he felt the Earth itself capable of emotions, emotions he gladly immersed himself in. Previously, when a god, he saw the Earth as just a rock capable of growing living things for which he had only a passing interest, nothing more.
But his love for Nalina, where did that fit in? To go to her open and vulnerable was presumptuous and would be seen as such, he had no doubt. But not if he had some basis on which to presume. Otherwise, it would be foolhardy and disastrous.
He watched the sun as it bathed the sky in a rich assortment of colors, from yellow to the deepest red, and thought again of the subtle shades in the spectrum of emotions. Which color was the one he felt? Or did he feel the whole white light at once?
At the end of the show he returned to his bunk, his hut just inside the first line of trees. He hadn't eaten since breakfast but didn't care; he knew what starving was and this wasn't it. Lying awake thinking of Nalina, he wished for some way to prove himself worthy of her affection. His physical desire for her was intense, profound, a surpise; he hadn't suspected humans could be so passionate and sensuous; the sensual he had yet to explore. The mosquito netting over the windows billowed slightly and the air was charged with a familiar odor. Rain, the monsoons had arrived.
He dreamed of Nalina, not surprisingly. But never having had sex with a human, his mind had nothing to draw on. When a god, sexual interactions could be accomplished over long distances. The participants merged, infusing one another with pleasures of the mind. When close, as with his favorite lover, Melissa, the intensity increased a thousand fold, ending in an abandonment of individuality and the forming of a oneness of forces, achieving heights of passion and satisfaction beyond the corporeal. He wondered if something similar would be the case in his human form. Or would it be far grander, intimate, his senses aroused and alive like nothing he could imagine? He yearned to touch her, to feel her body against his, her mouth on his, her long, luxurious black hair freed of its braid, to discover if the feel of skin would bring a pleasure even greater than mind only. It would be different to be sure, but in what way?
Having no human experience on which to conjure images, his dream instead centered on an overwheliming desire to enfold her in a cocoon of pure love and affection. He dreamed of the upcoming mission, that she had become wounded and he rescued her, helping her back to the village, a hero. Because of which she saw him differently, was drawn to him without reservations, desiring to express her gratitude in more than a public acknowledgement of his life-saving effort. But it felt unsatisfying, even in his dream state. He didn't want her that way, for that reason. He wanted her for love's sake only and not to demonstrate her appreciation, as though that would happen in the first place. That wouldn't be an equal merging of lovers but rather would amount to payment, sex on a mere carnal level devoid of spirit. He tossed and turned, a moth trapped in a bottle.
The downpour pelting the roof awoke him. Rain blew through the window netting; his hut-mates were busy closing the shutters. The air was muggy, thick; it strained his lungs. He rose and opened the door, a shiver went down his spine. Sheets of rain fell on the dry hard dirt, drops bounced crazily every which way high into the air like tiny steel pellets. Rivelets rolled down the embankment towards the river. A pale somber light shone through the dark grey sky; the mighty sun was denied. No birdsong this morning, no howl and cry of monkeys. He involuntarily recoiled at the thought of going out into it. He once caused this, but he never experienced it at ground level.
Tea was being prepared; the smell of it quieted his nerves. He sat on the edge of his bunk listening to the torrent pounding the ground, slapping in anger, holding nothing back. He was given a cup of tea for which he was thankful. Holding it with both hands, he focused on what he'd learned and the terms he'd become accustomed to. His personal weapon, the one he'd become quite proficient with, was the AK-47. On his right hip he wore a nine-millimeter sidearm in a holster, and on his left, a twelve-inch knife in a sheath, angled slightly forward. He learned to use mortars and grenades and how to set explosives, although that last item was left to the experts, primarily. He recalled tactics: firing in brief bursts, covering advancing comrades, out-flanking the enemy. There would be no digging of foxholes, they were an attack force only.
However, this was to be a recon mission, no engagemnt was expected, but you never know what's going to happen. They drummed that into him and he respected it. You never know. Nalina had said they'd go when the monsoons came; well, here they are. He sipped tea and waited for the word. And listened to the relentless rain. How long would it go on? He tried to recall those days, but it wouldn't come, the memory. He'd set the deluge in gear, then put his attention elsewhere, on frivolous, self-absorbed entertainments and pursuits. He drained the cup and rose to get another. He refilled those of his mates first, then returned to his bunk. He looked at their faces, they appeared as stunned as he. I guess there was simply no getting used to it, he thought, the beginning of the season, no matter how many times you've experienced it.
The downpour continued unabated; if anything, it got worse. He watched as one of his comrades scrambled eggs with last-night's fish mixed in. He wondered where the chickens had gone to hide. He rubbed his hand over his blanket, savoring its softenss and texture. He observed how the lantern light accentuated the interior of the hut, how the features of his mates dimmed and shifted as they ate, how the center post weaved minutely under the onslaught, how the waves of warmth from the wood cook-fire wafted over and around him, the stove struggling and belching backdraft occasionally. He valued these things like precious stones and waited for the word. It came.
The door opened and one of the officer's told them to get their gear in order and be ready to move out. Nalina had only informed him he'd be going the previous evening; he didn't know his hut-mates had already been chosen. They were far more experienced soldiers than he, of that he knew, and apparently tight-lipped when it came to military matters. He wasn't sure how to take this. They'd formed a special bond of friendship; they'd have to watch each other's backs in particular. He felt that as something new and unexpected; loyalty had gradations.
He gulped his tea and got dressed. The muffled throbbing of a truck engine far down the slope on the bank of the river pierced the downpour. They stood together around the stove, ready; all weapons checked and in hand, looking at one another, soaking up the heat. The door burst open again and the order to load up was given. As they neared the covered truck, confiscated from their foe, he smiled at Nalina. She smiled back but briefly, she was immersed in the mission. She and the driver were dressed in enemy uniforms. Pointing this out to one of his roommates questioningly, the reason was explained. They were already plugged in, Bob was flying blind. They'd be traveling on roads commonly used by the enemy, so impersonation was in order.
Ten of them, seven men, plus Nalina in the passenger's seat started down the road. The pounding on the canvas top forced them to shout at one another to be heard. After a few garbled attempts at nervous conversation, they surrendered to the din of rain and motor and the confines of their own thoughts. Bob went over and over the training he'd received, hoping to not forget any details in the heat of action, if such came. He tried to think of his former gardens, their splendor and unequaled beauty, but no images were forthcoming. He was engulfed in this soggy world in the here and now and that's where he needed to focus, his human mind did so automatically; all else in his life, past and present, was irrelevant and of no use. Bouncing on the hard bench, the roar of rain beating on the canvas cover, the smell of sweat and gun-oil and tobacco smoke, the engine oscillating as it navigated the muddy mountain road, and the loud splash of puddles filled the space of his personal landscape. To those let's not forget the butterflies in the pit of his stomach and the throbbing at his temples.
In spite of the chill rain, he noticed a definite rise in temperature as they descended. They slowed to a stop, leaving the motor running. Both doors opened. He guessed they were at the juncture with the bank road. No one said anything; it was best to keep quiet and listen. Presently, the doors slammed shut and they pulled through the camouflaged gate. They stopped momentarily to close it by a push of a button, then off they went, turning to the left down the road that'd taken him to the labor camp. The memory of the van ride nauseated him. The rain's intensity lessened. Shortly after, they turned right. He heard the distinctive ringing sound of tires on wet metal, they were crossing the bridge. Several minutes passed, maybe half an hour, he couldn't be sure; his mind was fogged, shrouded by discomfort and isolation. He wished he was in his warm quiet safe bunk under the soft blanket. And as quickly as he thought of it, he dismissed it.
The truck slowed, creeping along. He heard a branch crack, then several more. A thud, then a dip, and they stopped, engine off. High-pitched rain falling through countless leaves closed in. The tailgate was lowered and they jumped to the grassy ground. Speaking just loud enough to be heard above the din, Nalina informed them of the distance to the enemy's base. After concealing the truck with branches, they moved out in single file through the woods; Bob slogged along in the middle. Although he was grateful that the heavy rain proved to be an adequate cover, it worked in the opposite way as well. He found he couldn't see very far, so he focused on the man in front of him. He dreaded the possibility of getting detached from the group, lost far worse than on his first day with potentially serious life-ending consequences. Nalina found her way through the grey deluge with the aid of a compass. Apparently, that's all she needed.
Low branches and thick brush soaked his clothing; his rainhat kept him from drowning. So this is a monsoon, he mused. How many lives have been lost because of them? They pulled up and gathered under the protective branches of a massive tree. Nalina told them the base was just beyond the treeline. They fanned out, keeping an eye on the men to both left and right. Their job was to study the defenses and locate barracks and storage facilities that may hold munitions. At the main gate stood a three-story high guardpost with the mandatory one at ground level. No one who didn't need to be was out walking around the grounds in this rain--what they counted on--and the guards were inside their post enclosures. Conditions were perfect for sneaking around the entire base, taking note of the several high guardposts and the whereabouts of all buildings. With excruciating stealth, they moved as one around the compound, its fence of horizontal poles allowing for narrow spaces through which to see.
Nalina and two officers each had paper and pencil to take notes, a difficult chore in this weather, but one that was practiced. Everyone else did their best to memorize what they saw for corroboration later. When they returned to the village, all would be consolidated into one large picture. The compound ranged over a huge area, but after an hour of slow, methodcial work, they were done. They crossed the road below a bend, out of sight, as though anyone was looking. But, you never know. They'd circumnavigated the base, arriving near where they started. Nalina questioned them for information which she wrote down; she wanted agreement on locations so there'd be no fumbling for targets when they returned for the major assault. Bob briefly wondered why they needed ten heavily-armed people to do this, but then remembered--you never know.
Satisfied, they crept back the way they came, quickly uncovered the truck and backed out. Everyone was soaked to the skin. The notebooks were carefully placed in a dry plastic pouch. Bob felt a sense of relief he'd never known, the after-effects of adrenaline drained him. But he was also smart enough to realize it wasn't over 'til it's over.
They drove back towards the bridge chatting loudly, smiles all around, tobacco smoke swirling through the now communal space. The heavy rainfall no longer seemed so oppressive and unfriendly. How could it? reflected Bob, amused; he couldn't get any wetter. As they neared the bridge, the truck slowed. In his seat just behind the cab, he heard Nalina and the driver conversing. He couldn't hear what they said, but the tone was unmistakable. Someone up front banged on the rear of the cab, the signal to shut up and be ready. Cigarettes were stepped on, rifles checked, safety off.
Bob could tell by the sound of the tires that they'd pulled onto the bridge. Abruptly, the brakes screeched as they stopped. He heard them talking loudly because of the rain and the motors. Their driver was explaining to someone that they were heading into town for supplies. He heard a harsh voice coming from the other vehicle, which seemed lower and therefore smaller, ask if they would pick up such-and-such an item. Their driver was more than happy to, and with that they put it in gear and continued on. Bob crawled to the back and peered over the tailgate through the narrow opening between it and the canopy enclosing their domain. Two men in what he'd come to know as a jeep raced across the bridge and out of sight.
He regained his seat at the front and strained to hear Nalina and the driver, but they said nothing, not a word. When they got to the cratered road they made a sharp left and sped up appreciably. Everyone held on. Why dont' the powers-that-be fix this damn thing? he wondered angrily. Or was the neglect intentional? A softening up before reaching the worksite of the dam, a partially-built dam that no doubt had been thoroughly washed away, logs swiftly moving downstream and out to sea.
In no time they were at the entrance to their private road. The procedure he'd come to know--the opening and closing of the mysterious gate--was repeated and off they drove to their safe haven, the temperature chilling down with each upward mile. They pulled into the village square empty of people. No one would be rushing down to greet them this day. They parked alongside the other trucks and shut her down. Everyone piled out wearily and quietly returned to their separate domiciles. Except for Nalina and her two officers. They proceeded to the large house to report to the council. Ostensibly, after they changed into dry clothes, they'd go to work properly mapping out the compound. Mission accomplished.
Bob pealed off his clothes and hung them on a rack near the stove, his boots were dry inside, the miracle of animal fat. He dried himself, then, after dressing in his only other shirt and pants, rebuilt the fire. The designated tea maker went to work. It was a fine day, thought Bob, excited and pleased with himself, his body awake and alive, his chest tingling with confidence. He sat on the edge of his bunk reimmersing in the ambience, feeling his blanket, rubbing his bare feet on the small print throw rug, and listening to the rain pounding the roof and splattering the ground, now a sodden mess. The pelting had lost its bad temper; it now held an innocence he knew to be deceptive. After enduring its beating and ignoring its wetness, however, it no longer seemed a threat to his very existence. Later, perhaps, when its effects became more dramatic, he'd have a different opinion.
After two weeks of training in the rain and mud, being soaked to the bone had become the new normal. With time and exposure, it bothered him less and less; the rain, that is; crawling around in the mud was another story. He imagined the latter to do with getting physically tough, a previously unnecessary condition. On this end, this animal manifestation end, as the recipient of monsoon rain instead of the creator and administrator, he'd found the experience initially terrifying, something he was loathe to admit. But even though it was continual, it pushed so far and then relented. It would slow and speed up and then stop abruptly, the grey brightening--the new sunshine. Then, of course, it being the monsoon season, the cycle would repeat. At this current stage, the real threat was boredom.
Supplies of food and munitions came downriver from a town across the border in a country sympathetic to the rebel's cause (for broader reasons we need not go into). During the night, two riverboats had tied up at the dock. Bob mosied down there early after morning tea to help unload, this time wearing a waterproof poncho, one of the many helpful items garnered from the enemy at the labor camp, along with ammunition, plastic explosives, rifles, grenades, uniforms--stuff--and a 50-caliber machine gun. That was set up behind a sandbag bunker facing downroad.
On his way he was pigeonholed by the officer who'd given him boots that first day. With a simple gesture, he led him to the storage facility. When they arrived he retrieved a long case from a shelf and placed it on the work bench. Before he opened it, he told Bob that he'd proven himself quite the marksman and that they'd decided to make use of his special talent; assuming, of course, he was interested. Inside was a high-caliber, semi-automatic rifle with scope, the butt of its stock covered in thick canvas to protect the shoulder. Bob was aghast, it was beautiful. The officer told him they needed another sniper for the upcoming operation. And that he, being the best shot in the village, would personally train him. Bob didn't know what to say. It felt like a promotion or, at least, a recognition and appreciation; he was being offered a unique purpose as well. Perhaps Nalina would notice him more, see him with respectful eyes. That was all he had to think of. He accepted.
For the next three weeks he and the officer would go to the shooting range, a natural meadow about a hundred meters beyond the last huts. He learned to control his breathing and the subtleties of muscle movements. No nervous twitching, undescernable on the surface but affecting line-of-sight. He learned, in the rain, for hours every day. He was shown how to climb wet trees to the height that would be necessary, a height equal to that of the high guardposts at the compound. And how to do it without being seen. To move like an animal, a monkey, a creature that would not draw attention due to dissonance. Those guards did nothing all day but drink tea, smoke cigarettes, and stare at the trees facing them, watching birds and every other creature that moved through, ate or lived there. They would notice any anomaly, any departure from the norm.
His rifle became his friend, an extension of his arms, a weight he ceased noticing. He learned to clean the barrel and oil the parts. He treated it with affection, sometimes napping in the middle of the day with it next to him in the bunk.
During this time he and Nalina sat together at her secret brook often, its size and speed noticeably increasing with each visit. Bob found this curious. Though understanding the physical cause, he, nonetheless, couldn't help but think how attuned nature was to his feelings for Nalina. Is it always like that? he wondered. Is Nature constantly in tune with us on many frequencies, but we tend not to notice due to excessive self-absorption? They'd talk about the forest and its creatures. Once they sat enthralled watching a huge spider construct a web twenty-feet across, at least. Nalina taught him the names of different birds when they'd cry out or call or sing long melodies. And the butterflies, so many different species, were a startling marvel.
Why would they do that and how? he asked and other such questions that always made Nalina laugh, though she attempted to answer, often teasing with preposterous reasons and explantions. Yet they kept their distance. He out of caring for their friendship and respect for her, the commander--she did save his life. And she, he suspected, for deeper reasons. Scars left unhealed completley, if ever they could be. And the war. He could be killed, perhaps she feared going through that again. He didn't know and didn't ask. Enjoying these times with her in the drizzly rain that neither noticed, in this beautiful setting was enough for him. For now, anyway.
During the fourth week, the last before the assault was scheduled, he practiced alone; the officer had nothing more to teach. On his last day he made up a special test for himself. He put sheets of cardboard at the general locations where the three high guardposts that were designated his reponsibility stood. Each post had two men. Besides their personal weapons, they had a 50-caliber machine gun. The one at the main gate pointed in the direction of the road, but could easily cover the adjacent jungle as well. There were nine highposts ringing the compound, his three were the main gate and the two on either side. When the mortars started, they'd be able to see the positions of the mortar teams. It was absolutely imperative that they be taken out before they had a chance to use the 50-cal. But, he had to wait until the attack began to make sure all the guards came out of their protective enclosures. Timing was everything as was speed. So he practiced. Six rapid shots in the pouring rain while crouched in a tree, camouflaged with leaves and moss and lichen hanging from his arms. He took the main gate out first, then swiveling to his right and left, nailed the cardboard dead center. He did this over and over until he completely lost all sensation of self, physically, emotionally, mentally. He was the rifle and the bullets and the rain.
Back in his hut drinking tea, it finally struck him, leadening his body. Practicing for something, anything, eventually meets the threshold beyond which is the implementation. And if that something has to do with killing, that threshold is fairly high. Can I step over it? he had to ask himself.
When he was god of rain, he killed thousands, maybe more, through drought and flood and lightning fires while looking down and seeing nothing that concerned him. It was never intentional; he didn't try to end people's lives, it just happened naturally. Not just people, but all living things felt the consequences of his efforts or lack thereof. He felt nothing for them. They were products of the Earth, and he was a god living in a wholly different dimension of reality. Killing someone face-to-face, however, was another matter entirely. Trepidation gripped his heart; he fought the urge to vomit. For an instant, he felt the impulse to run away, to abandon his responsibility. Attempting to reclaim his resolve, he distanced himself, exclaiming, but they're only humans, and I'm.... At that he faltered.
He used to believe that living for himself and self alone was the meaning of life, at least, his life. But now, swimming in this sea of empathy and compassion, he realized a liberation as a human being that he never truly felt, with all his powers and control over the forces of nature, as a timeless selfish god. His universe, now, was human. He perceived it that way, felt it that way, thought in human terms and reasoned according to rules of logic that were peculiarly human. How far did empathy go? Where do you draw the line?
An uncertainty nagged at the back of his mind; he let it wash over him. He wasn't convinced he could carry out his assignment. What would change? he wondered. How would I be different? He sat ruminating, trying to think the situation through in the way he used to, in that godly realm where empathy was replaced by a scaled morality, if it can be called that. As a human, he had no empathy for microbes, he barely recognized their existence, except when they cause illness and death. Could humans infect the gods in such a disastrous way? A flash of insight almost made him drop his teacup. If humans stop believeing in gods because their entreaties go unanswered, would not gods vanish like mist in the hot sun?
He recalled the story Nalina told him of the massacre at her village, her incarceration and the forced labor of the men. Children shot and bludgeoned to death, huts and the personal belongings therein burned to the ground. That was not empathy in action. That was sick hatred and cruelty and oppression.. They had to be punished and stopped. People should be allowed to live free from such horrendous threats and insecurity. And if killing his six and afterwards as many as he could see running around the grounds amidst the mayhem would help put an end to it, at least in this tiny part of the world, then so be it.
He cleaned and oiled his rifle, then placed it carefully on the rack he built. He rolled up in his blanket listening to the light rain patter on the roof. The knot in his stomach had unwound. His conscience, his human conscience was clear. Briefly, he wondered if he ever had a conscience before? Suddenly, he collapsed within himself, exhausted from all his introspection. Thinking was left behind.
Lying still, he imagined Nalina, how she looked with her wet clothes sticking to her strong body and the supple way she moved through the jungle. Awash in a sea of emotion, he felt he was everywhere at once; that his true self permeated the entire village of people and animals, including those in the jungle. In no time, he drifted off.
Two days later, in groups of fifty, the entire assault force of one hundred fifty men and women gathered in the large house to go over the plan. If any clarification was needed with respect to specific responsibilities and objectives, now would be the time to bring them up. The mission would not be easy; it would take two days. They'd carry everything, each person backpacking something besides their own weapons: mortars, ammo, grenades, food and thermoses of cold tea, there'd be no fires.
The first day they'd hike through the jungle down to the foot bridge, halfway between the road bridge and the former dam project, over the western stream. Lookouts would be north and south on the road ready to radio warning of approaching vehicles. This, however, was thought unlikely. That road originally was a logging road, hence the stack of logs at the place where the dam was to be built, confiscated by the government when they forced the logging company out; thanks for the road and the logs, but good-bye. The dam marked the end of the road, so, it was expected to be free of enemy traffic. No one built a dam during the monsoon season.
Once across the bridge, they'd hike as far as they could before dark and camp out. The next day they'd be at the enemy's base, refreshed somewhat, before noon. Then they'd encircle the compound, setting electronically-triggered explosives at every-other vertical post of the fence. The mortar teams, familiar with the layout--main command building, barracks, storage sights, munitions dumps, drums of fuel--would attack by priority. In actuality, however, that meant everything at once. By this time, Bob, wearing his homemade camouflage suit, would've found his tree and climbed it, ready for the moment of truth. No one was to be left alive except, of course, for any prisoners or workers.
The plan sounded good on paper. Everyone left satisfied and confident, a little too confident, thought Bob. They were well-trained, however, and were eager to begin the mission. No one would be training or practicing this day; rest and preparation were required only. The rain came down in steady fashion. Bob and his mates readied their weapons and gear. They were also assigned packs of munitions and food to carry. Bob had scoured the storage building and found a plastic-coated yet flexible case for his rifle. He'd practiced climbing with the rifle slung diagonally across his back from left to right. He couldn't do anymore to prepare, except for having done the thing before. That was the threshold he promised himself he'd step over without hesitation.
He spent his free time in bed, trying unsuccessfully to nap. It would be a serious test of stamina for everyone, he had to keep up. Nerves made him fidgety, however, and he lay awake, senses alert for anything out of the ordinary. He was envious of his mates who slept soundly for hours while the rain pummeled the roof and the muddy ground. He fed the small fire to dry the air; no one could come down with a cold now. Eventually, he dozed off late in the day, worn out from worry and anticipation. If he had any dreams, he didn't remember them. He slept the sleep of the dead.
The following morning, surrounded by the rest of the village, the entire force stood ready in the square, filled to capacity. Even the dogs showed up for the occasion. A grave quiet blanketed the throng, underscored by the high-pitched pelting rain. Nalina raised her voice so that all could hear. She exuded encouragement, resolve, and confidence. And at the end, she reminded everyone of the atrocities committed by the government troops. The galvanizing bottomline was: We will show them no mercy, for they have shown none, and if captured, don't expect any. When she finished her speech, she raised her fist and shouted, the entire village reciprocated. With that, it became all business. In rows of twenty or more they proceeded into the dripping jungle. Rain gear would be left at the encampment so that movement would not be impeded when they reached the compound and noise would be held to a minimum.
Bob's mind wandered little on this downhill hike. Concentration on the physical ordeal of moving through an irregular terrain with hidden pits and furrows, downed trees and branches, carrying his pack and rifle, spare clips, sidearm and knife, took all his effort. He forgot the relentless rain trickling through the thick canopy, occasionally dripping on his neck. It was an integral part of the world, like air and trees and muscle aches, he'd come to accept as a simple fact of life.
No one spoke except to give warning of an invisible rock or hole or to point out an easier route around a clump of sticker bushes or boulder. It was a communal effort, they couldn't afford to have anyone seriously injured at this point. Caution and speed were the watchwords. Circumspection was a matter of necessity and survival. If anyone were to break a leg, he'd be left behind with no one to keep him company. An added incentive that encouraged Bob to step gingerly over anything suspicious. They stopped once for replenishment, and then as a single organism, continued forward. By dusk they were almost there, having traveled further than Nalina thought possible. Nonetheless, everyone was exhausted and needed rest. They camped in a large meadow, pitching light-weight neoprene tents intended for four but housing six. They ate, drank cold tea, then with little to say, collapsed in their bags. Guards in pairs equipped with walkie-talkies surrounded them at fair distance into the jungle. Relief would be hourly.
Bob removed his suit of leaves and moss, retaining the lichen draping his arms--he rather liked the way it looked--and crawled into his bag. Rain waterfalled down on his thin sheet of a tent, threatening to collapse it. He wondered out loud why here, out in the open, under the full onslaught of the monsoon. His tent mates informed him. They could've camped under the trees for protection, but it was safer to be all together in case of government patrols. The more scattered they were, the more visible and easily detected. The base would then be alerted and that would be the end to their surprise party. Better to take the chance of all being stumbled upon at once. The guards would let them pass and call in the warning; the patrol would then be killed before they could send an alarm.
Dawn came earlier than he wished. Foggily, he helped break down the tent and packed it away along with his bag, loaded his pack and rifle, and joined the others. He didn't need any tea; adrenaline was already taking possession of his body. He glanced at the watch the first officer had given him. The three snipers needed to know when the mortar attack would begin. That information would be given when they arrived on site by Nalina. Not everyone needed a watch. When all hell broke loose, they would know what to do. The fence would be blown down and the charge would be on. Buildings would be burning and exploding, the soldiers who survived the barracks bombardment would be straggling out, disoriented, into the driving veil of rain. Easy pickings.
Well before noon, they coud see the fence and the main gate not fifty meters away through the jungle. The mortar teams surrounded Nalina. As his share of the load, Bob carried mortar shells in his pack which he now gladly handed over. Relieved of that burden, he removed his rifle from its sheath and stuffed extra clips under his camouflage suit. The teams moved out to encircle the compound. Each had studied the diagrams drawn from the recon mission and each had specific targets, at first; afterwards it would be open season. The barrage would seem to come from everywhere at once.
Bob and the other two snipers then approached Nalina and her two officers. She offered no special recognition, no furtive wink; he was another sniper whose job was absolutely crucial. Bob felt gratified by this, anything less would've been patronizing. They were told the time of the attack and synchronized their watches. Dismissed, the other two split off to the left and right to find their tree. Bob had already spotted his. Fifty feet directly ahead, off to the right of the road, he stared up at the monstrous, broad-leafed creature of the forest and rubbed its bark lovingly. He wanted to be friends, to feel what it felt, to know its sinews and bumps and scars--its history and personality. To find cover behind its broad dripping leaves.
He climbed silently, stopping every so often to determine the best path through the next set of branches, keeping his eye on the high guardpost at the main gate, its occupants inside the tiny hut. When he reached the desired height, he studied all three posts. Because of being on the right side of the road, the one to the left was further down the field, approximately 300 feet, facing sheer woods. Sixty feet dead ahead on the other side of a a double-line of skinny new-growth trees was the barrier of horizontal posts. It stood 20-feet high and was topped with swirls of barbed wire. And every 20 feet a stout vertical post, bedded in the ground, braced it. Thirty feet to his left was the road and at its end, the gate. With all the stealth he could muster, he moved out from behind the massive trunk to stand on a confluence of thick branches. Using just the scope, he checked line of sight. Trees had been cleared thrity feet from the fence, and what few lay between his position and the guards in their sky-high world were empty of branches and obscuring leaves at his height, affording a clean shot.
Swivelling would not be a problem. After refitting the scope, he slowly descended to a squatting position, his weight on his heels as he went through the motions. He learned the hard way that when in a tree with thick bark, if it's necessary to shift direction as much as ninety degrees, it's better to pivot on the heel rather than on the ball of the foot. The toe could dig in at the worst moment, throwing you off balance and possibly revealing your location. He checked his watch--five minutes.
He took careful aim at the open door of the little enclosure on top the thirty foot guardpost. He saw where the 50-caliber machine gun stood at the railing facing the road. Below, at the gate itself, two other guards, likewise ensconced in their domicile, would have to be taken out after the ones in the high posts. His thoughts were forming swiftly and crisply, without extraneous clutter or emotional overtones. He waited--three minutes.
Blood raced through his body, his temples pounded. Momentarily light-headed, he regained control by forcing himself to breathe rhythmically, taking deep slow breaths. He flicked off the safety and masked by the convoluted song of a bird Nalina had identified--he tried to recall its name--quietly drove a slug into the chamber. He leaned back into a slight indentation in the trunk and relaxed completely, letting go of all stress and unclenching muscles as the officer had taught him, letting the tension run off his body like rain. Composure had to be maintained. He glanced at his watch--one minute.
He noticed motion inside the hut of the highpost by the gate. A soldier stepped out onto the open platform, a stunned look contorted his face as he squinted in Bob's direction, binoculars hanging round his neck. He raised them to chin level, continuing to stare, uncertain. Bob was already completely still but now added smallness; he wanted to be a tiny part of the trunk, a mere chunk of rough bark, invisible. Could he have been watching all the while, hidden in the shadows? Bob asked himself. His skin felt tingly as though countless insects crawled over it. His stomach lurched and his heart seemed to stop beating. He held his breath. As though on cue, the guard dropped the binoculars and grabbed the handles of the machine gun at the railing. He pivoted it towards Bob.
At the same instant, all hell broke loose. Explosions rocked the compound, the fence erupted and fell inward. Distracted, the guard turned towards the grounds where buildings were already on fire as mortars rained down. The munitions dump went up, the deafening noise went on in ever inceasing stages of ferocity. The other guard ran out as did those on the two adjacent highposts and those at the gate. Bob held his breath and shot smoothly and efficiently. First the one with the binoculars and his partner, then the two to his left, and swiveling like a monkey, the two down to his right. By this time, the guards at the gate knew where he was and were firing. Bullets pinged off the trunk and ripped through leaves, shredding Bob's world. He levered forward and took them both out in rapid succession. Main assignment completed, he roamed his eye over the grounds. Soldiers were scrambling out of the burning, demolished barracks. Two raced for a machine gun fortified behind sandbags. He nailed them before they got there.
By this time, all the structures were burning. His people were moving in, shouting and spraying bullets, running across the imploded fence and spreading over the compound. The start of an engine caught his ear. Out of the heavy rain and billowing smoke, a truck raced for the gate right towards him. He waited for the perfect angle, then shot the driver. The truck jerked violently to the left and flipped over. The men who'd managed to climb inside spilled out. Dazed and injured, they didn't last long.
Bob wiped his mouth, his hand had blood on it. He realized he'd been biting his lower lip the whole time. Through sheets of rain and clouds of smoke he could see fires burning like cinders in the village bonfire. A loud hissing permeated the air, the rain was doing its job. Off to his right he watched his fellow soldiers cautiously cross the open grounds. Muffled explosions punctuated the otherwise quiet surroundings. A burst of rifle fire on the far side of the compound signaled it wasn't over yet.
He spotted Nalina leading a small group about a hundred feet to his left but well inside the compound. In front of her a burnt-out truck, its ruined canvas top smoldering in the rain, rested in the mud, its cab facing to her right. He watched, concentrating solely on her, no longer scanning for targets. She stopped abruptly, shifting left, rifle poised as though hearing something coming from the commander's house, now broken and burning, its walls collapsed and roof a splintered mess. Her mates to the right turned in the opposite direction and began to move off. In seconds, she stood alone. A puff of wind blew smoke off the crumpled house, momentarily concealing Nalina. Bob rubbed his eyes, they burned from the acrid residue of plastic explosives and whatever had been in the munitions store.
When the smoke covering Nalina and blocking his view passed on beyond both her and the truck, a uniform moved out from behind its hood clutching his rifle. Nalina was busy rubbing her eyes, facing the other way. Instinctively, Bob yelled, loudly, violating the sniper handbook, calling her name, but his voice was smothered by the spattering of rain on mud-puddles and the intervening trees. He raised his rifle and took steady aim. He guessed the distance at 250 feet, give or take. He let out his breath and eased back on the trigger--click. The clip was empty, he hadn't counted how many he'd shot, another mistake. He fumbled for a full one but got tangled in the awkward camouflage. The uniform spotted her and raised his rifle. Bob's chest clenched, he felt as light as a feather. A terrible anguish filled his mind. Without thinking or feeling, he raised his right arm and pointed directly at the uniform, now aiming at Nalina's back. From Bob's hand a lightning bolt the likes of which he'd never known pierced the smoldering air and shattered the enemy soldier with a cracking sound. Nalina spun on her heels, crouched down. The soldier lay a charred wreckage mushed into a blackened disc of soggy earth, no longer recognizable. She looked straight in Bob's direction as though she could see him, disbelief on her face. He smiled back. She then moved quickly off to catch up to her troup, now on the other side of the compound, out of sight.
A tragedy avoided. Relieved, he leaned back against the strength of the mighty tree to catch his breath when the awareness and, shortly thereafter, the significance of what just transpired crept up the base of his neck like electric worms, crawling through the back of his brain. Stunned to immobility, he asked out loud, how could I have done that? Where did that come from? Overwhelmed, to say the least, he remained perched in his nest for the duration of the cleanup.
Weapons and ammunition, what was left of it, were gathered and loaded onto one of the surviving trucks. They searched the gutted command house for maps and other information; there wasn't much left. Bob heard his name being called--Ramajani. The other snipers were standing at the botom of his tree, smiling and laughing, telling him it was safe to come down, time to go. Everyone packed into the trucks and jeeps, they had no fear of running into government troops on the road. Let it be.
He sat in the lead truck, in the corner behind Nalina, separated by a sheet of canvas, lost in wonder. Everyone was chattering, cigarette smoke and the smell of sweat and oil filled the air. No one seemed to notice how drenched they were. He couldn't think straight; what happened shouldn't have, of that he was sure.
Back home, it was a joyous celebration. The entire rest of the village had gotten the word by radio; the elders, dressed in formal clothes, stood to greet them in the rain, now appreciably restrained, almost a drizzle, comparatively speaking. They surrounded Nalina, patting her on the shoulder and hugging as they shuffled towards the big house, her domicile. She'd want to change and then brief the elders. Bob would not see her again this day. Some busied themselves buidling a gigantic bonfire and others returned from their huts with bottles of liquor and plenty of herb to smoke. In spite of accolades for a job well-done, Bob begged off drinking to retire to his hut to get out of his sniper suit and change into something more human. Funny, he noted to himself, that expression--change into something more human.
Mechanically, he did just that, coming to rest on the edge of his bunk, cold cup of tea in hand, the fire having gone out an age ago. A thought suppressed finally surfaced--something was wrong. Or possibly, right. Doubt led to insecurity which led to consternation. It wasn't expected; it's not in the manual. He thought to himself: Would the council strip me of my godly powers except for dire emergency? Am I yet a god but have believed all this time I was powerless? No, that can't be. I've tried to will myself to transport to another locale unsuccesfuly more than once, to no avail. Perhaps they didn't see those times as emergencies. I certaintly did. Had they been watching and saw what was about to happen and only temporarily gave me the power to do what I did? Compassion? From them? Coincidences led me here. One after another. Too coincidental, I thought. The old woman with the shirt and her lookalike with the warm jacket. But then there was the labor camp. Had not I been there, however, I would not be here now. And I would never had met Nalina and know the love I feel for her and these people. The empathy and caring.
He sat transfixed, in deep meditation, he couldn't go on until he resolved this strange turn of events. His mind tumbled and raced, gathering essentials from memories, stiching them to impressions, twisting images and noting comments that struck him as odd, curious sideways looks that seemed to send a signal, weaving it all together as in the old times, building a complex picture. Finally, his mind settled on: Why did I act that way, extend my arm and will a bolt of fire as though I knew without question that I still possessed the power of lightning? I thought I'd left all traces of my god identity behind? I thought I'd become fully human. The reality of human life; the visceral intensity of it; the freedom of it. And most importantly, the capacity to feel true love, not the conditional, judgemental kind of the gods, but the focused, vulnerable, delicious, unconditional kind of humanity. Human love, in its most perfect form, is unequivocal. That sense of certainty, if reciprocated, releases all energies in the service of love. Yet it is wholly uncertain, lying outside the self, a transcending living thing unto itself.
Was that it then? he said out loud, standing abruptly as though poked. Could love as I felt it then, when Nalina was about to be killed, to be taken from me and with her the hope for and promise of genuine happiness, could that have given me the energy to transcend my incarnation? He put down his cup and in quick sure motions built a fire in the tiny stove. He needed to feel his body move, to feel his soreness from the hike through the wet jungle and the cramped sniper position. Each ache brought back a memory, an image, a feeling of presence fully engaged in human senses and emotions.
He stood barefoot on the rug in the dampness searching for perspective, feeding the nascent fire.
An earthbound animal imbued with all manner of gifts, talents, and capabilities will yet find life meaningless without love. The power of love supercedes all restrictions, all limitations across space and time; it is a primal, inextricable force of nature that connects one with the other. It transcends self. Not allegiances; not loyalties to family and friends; not obedience to laws, customs, and protocols; not fear of exile, can stand in the way of love's imperative.
The fire grew from his attention, bright flames licked the split dry wood. He gazed at it fondly, savoring its warmth and the senses that felt it. Then suddenly, all went black. Weightless, he could no longer feel his body; he was adrift in a void he knew not where. Presently, he appeared in the council chamber of the gods, all members spoken for, with Fred, god of the sun, sitting in the highest chair in the middle. They faced Bob, standing where he'd been that fateful day when he was expelled from the godly realm and forced to live the life of a human. He was shocked into speechlessness. Fred spoke for him, infusing his thoughts into Bob's mind, aligning them in congruence with his human interface. He told him they were gratified by what he'd learned and that his time amongst the people of Earth had not been wasted, but was over. He could return to be fully reinstated as god of rain with all his powers and dominion over the forces of nature that fell under his purview restored.
They all smiled, quite pleased with themselves. Bob was devastated. He looked down at his palms expecting to see callouses, scratches from the prickly brush, and traces of gun oil embedded in the cracks, to bear witness to his humanity, to reinforce his soul, but saw only light. He was in his godly form, pure energy wrapped in a matrix of thought, generating sensation at will. His gardens, his precious, magnificent gardens, he now realized were nothing more than elaborate illusions, projections of his mind, made manifest by sheer will. He'd always simply taken it for granted; it was the way of life, effortless, a timeless life in a timeless dimension of reality. But a reality of emptiness and form only.
Timeless though it be, there were vectors of duration willed into being when necessary. This was one of those times. Their smiles began to fade as Bob stood silent. Fred leaned forward, attempting to be the understanding father. He transferred the thoughts: It's all a big surprise, we agree. You thought you were gone forever, banished to a barbaric land with no magical recourse. But, you were not forgotten. In fact, Melissa ventured into that land disguised as an old woman, to help you along when needed.
That old woman with the shirt and jacket, recalled Bob. But though he appreciated her assistance, such as it was, and the help they gave by instilling in him what he needed to know--the manual--and providing him with a pocketful of cash, he resisted their shallow show of concern for his welfare--the van ride with the unfriendly uniforms popped into his head. He would not be condescended to, it was too late for that.
This mustn't be; it can't be; I refuse. He communicated as much; they felt his passion and resolve. Fred sat upright, astonished. Not an easy thing to evoke in the god who controls the workings of the sun and its effects on the entire system, the father of material life. How could you refuse our generous reprieve? Has being a human driven you mad? Do you realize what you'll be giving up? Your immortality. You'll die. Think about it.
Bob was well aware what he'd be sacrificing. He dreamed of nothing else, in the beginning. Nonetheless, he had no doubts; his mind was made up. In fact, for the first time in his life, godly and human, he was absolutely certain.
Fred conferred with the others in the timeless zone. What was transpiring was unprecedented and hugely unexpected. Bob stood stalwart and determined; he bore no misgivings. He thought only of Nalina. A vector formed, Fred leaned forward and gingerly said his piece, speaking for all: You may have your desire, Bob, god of rain. Although, ironically, the courage and fortitude you're showing by this decision is precisely what we wish for in a god. We won't pretend to understand it fully--the bond you feel for these humans--but it has given us something to think about. We'll be watching.
All went black again. But after what seemed an instant, sensation returned, his aches and pains felt more acute, but he didn't mind; they offered visceral testament to his bodily presence. They'd heal. He stood over the fire, it looked exactly as it had. No time had passed on this plane of existence. A light tapping on the open door caused him to swivel as he had in the tree. Nalina recoiled in feigned fear, then smiled that enchanting smile of hers, devoid of all pretense, radiating a warmth that filled his soul.
The dark hardwood doorway framed her lean strong body, her long black hair, free of its braid, cascaded over her shoulders and down her back. Behind her, islands of blue dotted the sky, the rain had ceased. The freshened air sparkled like crystal, scrubbed clean. A shaft of sunlight glinted off the grey-blue river. Down the slope the bonfire raged; music played, men and women laughed and sang and danced.
Bob didn't hesitate, the unambiguous moment had arrived. He went to her, took her in his arms, and kissed her with all his heart. She kissed him back.
He was in heaven.