They said of him that he would be watching. They said he would see the last of them to their graves, and the world itself would spiral down into infinity, before his eyes could rest. He brought to them the seasons, the sun and the rain, and he taught them dread.
They said he was a god.
They worshipped him. They beseeched him often, in their times of peril or of pain; sought in vain for his solace, begged fruitlessly before him that he might forgive their sins, because even though they could not explain the meaning of sin, the gift was not theirs to understand. And although they believed they heard his voice, he never answered.
Enthroned upon his mountain-top among the frozen rocks, his immortal flesh scoured by wind and ice, he was a king, at least, of all he surveyed: his eyes always open, his ears filled by the knowledge of man, unsleeping, watching the ages pass. And he learned.
In his time he was accused of many things, at once feared and admired for his indiscretions. He took the innocence of a king’s beautiful daughter they said; came to her disguised by the night in a cloak of swan-down to give her a son she would raise to be his intermediary with the people – but no-one saw, or had word of the child. Time brought rumours of many sons, to whom were accorded the powers of minor gods, and daughters too. He divided his responsibilities among them, his subjects claimed – for childbirth, for death, for fire and fertility – children unseen, with powers never proved.
The people prospered. Their numbers grew. They lost their fear of him, spurning the myths of his children and turning their prayers to the mountain less often, yet they committed greater and greater enormities in his name, and still they had no understanding of their wrongs.
He had left the mountain long before the first bold feet ascended to his high watchtower, left no trace of his presence among those merciless rocks; so they allowed themselves to laugh, perhaps a little nervously, at their primitive notions of his existence. But he was watching, just as before.
There were some who knew his presence still, and many who pretended. They made proclamations, they wrote laws they said that he had written, and words they said that he had spoken. Some said he lived within each one of them, others believed him to rule from somewhere beyond the sky. Few knew the truth; for the truth was that his home was where it had always been; beneath their feet – that he was the ground whereon they walked.
In all the world there were none who suspected, or truly understood his mind; who could fathom his relationship to man. They sought his guidance when he had none; prayed for his favour when he gave none, but because they had shaped him into a loving and merciful image in their own minds they were sure, despite all evidence, he must be righteous and just.
With time he grew tired of learning about the imperfect mortals that moved about him. He resented the barbs they plunged ever deeper in his flesh. And he recognised signs of a transformation in himself, because of all the lessons he had acquired from the human infestation one stood tall – they had taught him emotion. Their unnatural agriculture used chemicals to burn his skin and their treatment of beasts that truly were his own creation moved him to tears; and where he wept new waters sprang, and where he vented his fury he sent fire into the sky. Now, at the last, he would prove worthy of their prayers. Now at last, far too late, they had reason to fear him.
Knowing these creatures could never be true custodians of his world he was not yet moved to their destruction, though his impatience with them grew. He shrugged his shoulders, sending their dwellings tumbling, more and more. He charged the air with fire, he turned oceans to ferment, ice to rain. Yet he did not dispatch them. They vexed, but they did not infuriate. Not yet. Why? Well, there was yet something in his aged world to gladden his heart.
He had seen her walking by this river before, a girl with pale cheeks and features that were perfection; whose dark blue eyes were filled by the mystery of the waters and whose soul was clear of mortal sin. She walked with a man, another human, but this did not deter him, for no mortal could withstand his presence. He had seen her, and he had wanted her.
“I think,” said Nadia, as she crouched on her heels by the riverbank, reaching to dabble her fingers in the water; “You should leave the poor fish alone.”
“Do you?” the young man laughed. “So you would consign the most popular pastime of all to the dustbin of incorrectness at a stroke, would you?” He baited his hook.
“No, Ben, but I don’t see the point. You entice them to bite on those horrible barbed things of yours, terrify them by hauling them from their natural element, then rip their mouths apart before you toss them back in. Why?”
“Fish can’t feel pain.” Ben shaped to cast his line.
“Are you sure of that?”
“It’s been proven.”
“Not, I take it, by a fish.” Nadia sighed. “Oh, look at the swan, isn’t it beautiful?”
“It’s a bird.” The young man’s baited hook zipped over Nadia’s head on its way out into the torrent. “If you don’t like fishing, why did you come?”
“I like the river, and I like you. Ben, is it me, or is that swan swimming towards us?”
“Maybe it thinks you’ve got some bread for it. Give it a sandwich.”
“I’m sure you shouldn’t….” Nadia’s voice faded into silence as she found herself gazing into the eyes of the swan, which were the most thoughtful and visionary eyes she had ever seen. They were eyes of knowledge and destiny, bearing a message for her alone. It was all she could do to remain where she was upon the riverbank, because the bird’s stare was mesmerising her. It wanted her to join it, to give herself to its embrace. Reflected in shimmering white upon the water, the noble creature glided ever nearer, dipping its head to nibble at a temptation that skipped by on the current.
“It’s taken my hook.” The young man shouted. “The bloody thing’s taken my hook!”
“Oh no! Do something!” Nadia rushed forward, plunging to her waist into the river to reach for the swan, all her instincts screaming that this bird must be protected; must be rescued. For a few dread filled seconds the swan’s powerful wings churned the water as it thrashed wildly against the line, then, as suddenly as it had been taken, it was gone. Running with the current on desperate feet it gained the air. Graceful yet crippled, its neck crooking as it tried to cough the metal hook free, it ascended, and all Nadia could do was watch it depart. She rounded on Ben. “I could have got to it. Why didn’t you wait?”
“I cut the line. I couldn’t hold it, I’d have lost the rod and everything if I’d tried.”
“You let it go.” Nadia wept bitterly, for she had seen in the space of a second everything the world had missed. “You condemned it.”
She turned from Ben to walk home alone. As she walked the world grew cold and a different darkness fell.
“Another one?” Baldai asked.
“The third in this cycle.” Procator affirmed, as they watched the screen. “Most regrettable. It seems this is the critical evolutionary phase. The statistics for this galaxy are quite damning, I’m afraid. We’re having some success, but almost entirely with acquatic solutions. Land-based life forms are simply too fallible. It’s almost as though the stock is corrupt.”
“That is possible, of course.” Baldai admitted. “However, there’s nothing to be done. Is he recovering?”
“To a point, I suppose. Avian disguises are particularly difficult to treat, and he had been in a river for three weeks before we could bring him up. The physical recovery is good, but…” Procator made a gesture of futility; “his psychological makeup has completely burned out. He has expressed a wish to retire to his galaxy of origin and I think that is probably best.”
“And that?” Baldai waved at the image on their screen of the bereft planet: “What shall we do with that?”
“Oh, dispose of it. There’s another eligible candidate closer to this sun-star, if you think we should have another try – but I would be inclined to emphasise the oceans, this time.”
© Frederick Anderson 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content