Austerity of the Gods

I led my last goat up the hillside, dry scrub grasses scratching my bare calves. She was a good goat, bouncing behind me despite her years, empty udder flapping between her legs. Didn’t pull at the hempen rope clutched in my hand. Ears twitching with the expectation I was taking her to greener pastures.

The flat rock stained rust red found by my father’s father’s father was surrounded by sandy loam. From the hilltop, the valley of my ancestors spread out like shattered pottery beneath a cloudless blue sky. All was brown. Furrows from my spring plowing remained empty, seeds unsprouted or withered. The grapevines twisted into dead fists aimed at the sky. My two youngest children kicked up clouds of dust playing while my wife and eldest daughter had gone to fetch water. They wouldn’t return until dark.

Which was lucky for me. My wife would have objected to what I was about to do.

My nanny goat hopped onto the rock and bleated, demon eyes blinking as she surveyed the valley. I picked up a hefty rock and slammed it into her skull so she would not thrash when I slit her throat and sliced open her belly, pulling her gray rumen and entrails out onto the rock.

Her back legs were still kicking when the god of agriculture appeared in a puff of lush leaves, which wilted as they floated to the ground.

He was a broad fellow, shorter than me by a hand and a half. Wearing nothing but underclothes, his corded muscles pressed against his work tanned skin. Despite the physique of a working man, his white beard was pristine, his skin free of dust, his meaty hands soft. He leaned on his scythe, his storm-cloud eyes calm. “You summoned me?”

Bowing my head, I said, “Forgive me, Great One. But, I must inquire as to why my crops won’t grow. Two years ago, the locusts ate everything I planted. Last year, the blight came and my fruits withered on the vine. This year, we have no rain. Why is this happening to me?”

The god licked his thumb and rubbed at his scythe blade as he spoke. “Look, Pete. It’s nothing against you personally, but the deities held a congress and we decided that we’ve been giving too much to man. You’ve grown soft since your creation. You lack initiative and innovation. We spend all our days up in the clouds, watching over you. And for what?”

“I killed my last goat for you,” I said.

“And look how pathetically skinny she is.” He bent down, hefting the dead goat over his shoulder. Her innards left no blood upon his skin. “This is the best you have to offer us?”

“It’s all I have to offer you.”

“Which is our point. You have the entire world in which to thrive and fail. Now, if you excuse me, there’s a nubile nymph waiting to feed me grapes I grew this morning.”

He disappeared in a puff of leaves, taking my dead goat with him.

Evening came and my wife returned. She boiled dry roots and worm-eaten grain. The children and I ate while she sipped the broth made by our only meal. Only once did she ask me about our last goat.

I chewed for a long time before answering. “Bandits. From over the hill. I stopped them before they got to our home, but they stole the goat. I praise the gods you were gone when it happened. Do not frown, love. We are lucky to have each other. Bring me my flute and I will play the children a song so they’ll sleep better on their half-full bellies.”

A week later, I marched back up the hill, a white dove struggling in a net. Had my wife seen it, she’d have claimed it for supper, but she and the children had gone over the southern hill to search for snakes. I put my flute down on the flat rock when I reached the top and beside it cut the dove’s belly open, pulling out its entrails.

Music, as beautiful and painful as my first son’s wail when he emerged from my wife, shrieked in my ears. I clapped my hands to my head and crumbled, but the goddess of music caught me and pulled me to my feet. She was clad in sheer silks, black hair twisted up in a structure of gold combs and cherry blossoms.

“Oh, a dead dove. How lovely,” she sang. She picked up the bleeding pile of feathers and tilted her head back. A serpentine tongue shot out as her jaw unhinged, coiled around the dead bird, and sucked it into her mouth. She produced a silk cloth from the air and patted her lips. “You summoned me, Pete?”

“Yes. Um.” I swallowed back some bile, disgust and attraction warring in my gut. “Forgive me, but my flute…”
It appeared in her hand a moment later. “Ugly little thing, isn’t it?” She pressed her wine stained lips against it and played a mournful dirge.

“I suppose it is,” I said. “But it’s the only flute I ever owned. My mother gave it to me when I was just a boy.”

“You should make her apologize.” The goddess again lifted my flute and an airy tune fluttered out.

“She’s dead, but that’s not the problem.” I held out my hand. “May I?”

The goddess returned my flute and I blew against it. Air whistled out. “I can’t play anymore.”

“Oh, of course you can play it. It just won’t make noise.” She grabbed it from me.

I ran a hand over my beard. “But why won’t it make noise?”

She smiled, teeth the color of moonlight. “Well, you see. The other deities and I decided that perhaps man would fare better if he had less distractions from his work. Every night, you play your flute while your fields lay fallow.”

“But that’s only because nothing will grow. We’ve had no rain–”

“Now, now. That’s not the type of attitude that gets things done. Blaming others. Making excuses. It’s a poor example to set for your children, playing music instead of growing crops.”

“But, my music is the only way they’ll sleep at night.”

She played a sad little tune on my flute and shook her head. “They’ll have to learn to survive without it. Poor dears have been spoiled by your laziness. The next generation must be stronger than the previous.”

“But–”

She pressed a finger to my lips. “But. But. But. That’s all I hear from you. Work harder if you want music back again.”

The same ethereal sound echoed in my ears and I fell to my knees. When I blinked the blackness from my eyes, she was gone, as was my flute.

My wife and children returned with a snake no longer than my hand. My children and I shared its roasted flesh while she sucked at the bones. When the meat was gone, the children began to whine because they were still hungry.

“Maybe you should play them a song,” my wife said. “Help them sleep.”

“I would, love, but while you were gone the bandits came and took my flute. I’m so glad you and the children were away. They’ll just have to learn to sleep without it.”

A month later, I stomped up the hill, a mouse pup I caught in our last grain basket writhing in my fist. My oldest child had taken the younger ones to fetch water while my wife lay sick in bed. I threw the mouse down on the flat rock and stomped on it, grinding my bare heel against its bones.

Lightning blinded me and the god king appeared in his golden robes, sitting in a chariot drawn by two winged elephants. Bark-skinned maidens sat on either side of him, one holding a chalice of wine, the other a leg of roasted lamb.

“What do you want, Pete?”

“You had sex with my wife!”

The maidens gasped, then giggled.

The god king rolled his eyes at me. “You men are so uncouth. I didn’t have sex with your wife. I appeared to her in a dream state as a river filled with spawning tadpoles, one of which wriggled it way into her–”

“I don’t want to hear it. You got her pregnant!”

This time, the maidens giggled, then gasped.

“So vulgar. This is why man fails,” the god king told me. “I didn’t impregnate your wife. I planted a divine seed within the fertile blood of her womb.”

“The end result is going to be the same.”

“I’ll give you that.” He gestured to the meat maiden, who pulled a strip of goat off the leg of lamb and fed it to him.

“But… but, why?”

“Wow, you do say ‘but’ a lot, don’t you?” He took a drink of his wine and leaned back. “One day, I was walking the world in the form of a flea and heard your wife crying. She was kind of pretty, so I turned into a river and copulated with her in a dream, which manifested as a pregnancy when she woke.”

“You seduced my wife,” I said.

“Please, river can’t seduce people.” He sighed. “It’s not as if you appreciate her, Pete. You don’t feed her enough. You don’t play your flute for her anymore. Besides, didn’t I tell you people to multiply? And you haven’t had a child with her in three years.”

“That was a conscious decision.” I gestured to the dry soil surrounding our shack. “I can’t feed the three children I have. We can’t have another one.”

The god king squeezed out of his chariot, over one giggling maiden, and stepped by my side. “Of course you can. I see how much you’re struggling. I see how hard you’re trying. Consider this pregnancy my gift to you. You get to raise one of the next great heroes of the world. My son…” He paused, scratching his lip. “Or daughter. I haven’t really decided yet. Do you have an opinion?”

I shook my head.

“One of each, then. I hate making decisions. You’re going to get to raise the children who save the world, Pete.”

“I really just need rain,” I said.

“Sorry, rain isn’t my department,” the god king said. “Besides, you’re working hard. You should feel good about that. Hard work keeps a man honest.”

“We’re starving.”

“You’re doing it honestly. That’s what matters.”

“But you’ve taken my rain, my music.”

The god king held up his hands. “That was the other gods’ idea. I stay out of the affairs of mortal men… mortal women, though? That’s another matter.” He elbowed me and winked.

I began to cry as he climbed back on his chariot.

“Hey, calm down there, buddy.” He took up the reins and smiled at me. “If there’s anything I can do for you–”

“Could I have one of your winged elephants so we can eat?”

He snapped in reins. “I’d love to. Really, but they’re my wife’s. Tell you what. I’ll leave the mouse.” He snapped the reins a second time and disappeared in a flash of lightning.

My wife lay sick on our pallet when I returned home, sipping on the little water we had left from the previous day.

She rose onto her elbows, lips pulled tight in discomfort. “Did you confront the bandit that did this to me?”

I sat by her side, patting her hand. “They said they appreciate how hard we’re working.”