Happy Saturday! We’re glad to be back with more stories from our writers, in response to this week’s prompt:
“There were 48,000 gods in their mythology and not one…” (Prompt courtesy of eadeverell.com)
Our three writers who contributed this week all went in very different directions…enjoy!
It was my first on-planet assignment. I should have been nervous, but I had too much to prove. I’d been begging to utilize my astro-anthropology degree for nearly a year. I was tired of listening to interminable lectures on the importance of the Primary Dictate, named supposedly after some popular twentieth century entertainment. I’d managed not to fill my brain with such foolishness; as if anything from the twentieth century could have any relevance to our work today.
I was ready, more than ready, to do this!
It was a tight fit for the three of us and our gear in the shuttle. This was apparently an agrarian society, with limited technological advancement. We were dressed in replicas of the garments that had been observed. For the most part, the inhabitants spent their time outside in the fields or caring for livestock. But every morning and every evening they filed into a large building at the edge of town and spent a full standard unit inside. That was one of the first things we wanted to determine. Were these meetings political, educational or religious in nature?
I was expected to stick close to Sgt Green on this trip, but I intended to provide a reason as soon as possible to take off on my own. Sgt Green was old, at least fifty, and a stickler for protocol. She should be sitting shipside and leave exploring to those of us who were more flexible, physically and mentally. She was the one who had kept me waiting for this opportunity. She kept saying I was too eager. Too volatile, too hasty. Like my quick wits were some kind of deterrent.
She was so rigidly rulebound, I was surprised she was able to get anything done.
The first day, we observed from a distance. When they all trooped inside the unknown building, John snuck over and tried to listen. Though our translations weren’t perfect, we’d been able to gather enough of their speech for our computers to provide explanations for most of their words. John was the most proficient with translations in the field. He liked to rub this in, ad nauseum. I could have been as good as he was, if I’d been interested enough about their words to care. I was fascinated with the belief systems of primitive cultures. And this culture was quite primitive.
John came back over before the standard unit ended and we were out of sight when they came pouring out, headed toward their homes.
“Their meeting appears to be religious in nature,” John said. “My ability to translate was impeded by the numerous proper names that were used. They appear to worship an extraordinary number of deities. I must have misunderstood their numbering system. I could swear one of them referenced 48,000 gods.”
I snorted, quietly, but apparently not quiet enough.
Sgt Green pinned me with her gaze. “Do you have something constructive to add, Private Grey?”
“I think they must have said 480, not 48,000,” I answered, fighting to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. 48,000 gods? Ridiculous.
John sighed and spoke again, aiming his words at Sgt Green. “The strangest part of the ceremony was a question and answer portion. Inhabitants would call out questions or seek assistance, such as with a sick animal or a field that was not as productive as expected. Then there were answers, in a variety of strange low voices.”
“What made you think they were so strange?” I knew I sounded impatient, but I couldn’t help it. I should have been allowed to listen, not just John Brown. He might be better at translation, but he wouldn’t recognize the subtleties of such a ceremony like I would.
“I’ve been listening to the inhabitants of this world for more than a week now,” he said shortly. He was glaring at me like I would have glared at an infestation of insects. “I’d swear they are incapable of making such guttural noises. It’s almost as if their deities were answering.”
I burst out laughing. Was John losing it? 48,000 gods? Deities answering the inhabitants? Maybe this was a hazing tradition for everyone on their first planetary expedition.
Or maybe not. I’d forgotten one of the rules: Never bring attention to yourself.
A net fell over the top of us and rough hands wrapped it tight. John was desperately seeking someone who would listen to him. Someone he could explain our presence to. He was ignored. Sgt Green had her comm unit out to request extraction, but one of the planetary inhabitants struck it out of her hand before she could connect to the ship.
We were dragged into the large building; the one we’d planned to study. In the front was a rough stone that reminded me of an altar from old Earth religions. At the front, wearing a red robe was an ancient resident of indeterminant gender. They raised their arms, looked at the ceiling, and in a loud voice, called out a question about who we were.
Even though they hadn’t been addressing us, John spoke up, saying we were visitors from another region of this world who were merely lost. Of course he’d stick to the Primary Dictate, even at a time like this.
Then a voice boomed out from the ceiling. A low gravelly voice, like stone grating against stone. It was so loud, the floor seemed to vibrate with it. “The stranger has spoken an untruth.”
The inhabitants crowded more tightly around us, their mood going very dark. It seemed that lies were a serious offense on this planet. Sgt Green asked to speak to whoever was in charge, but was struck so hard she fell to the ground and didn’t move.
John called out that we meant no harm. But the low growling voice said. “They will bring discord and ruin. They must be stopped.”
When John opened his mouth to argue, he was struck down also. I was left there alone, in a hostile crowd. To hell with the Primary Dictate. “We come from the stars,” I yelled. “We’re space travelers.” I would have liked to say more, but my knowledge of their language was too limited.
Several low voices boomed out as I finished, filling the space with noise, shaking the entire building with the power of their furious arguments. At first I wished I had John’s ability to translate, but I was able to piece together enough. There were, in fact, 48,000 gods in their mythology. And these gods were alive and aware and interacted with this world. And they were all accusing me of lying.
I was dragged outside. My hands were tied behind my back around a rough pole that dug into my back. I couldn’t reach my comm unit. I couldn’t let anyone know what was happening.
They piled logs and kindling around my feet. In the distance, I could see burning torches being carried toward me. I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it.
48,000 gods in their mythology, and not one who believed in space travel.
Cheryl Mahoney: A Feast for the Gods
There were 48,000 gods in their mythology, and not one of them knew how to cook. Since the gods generally subsisted on the essence of the offerings given at their respective altars, this was not usually a problem. Until the Day of the Miracle of the Vanishing Gifts.
It was long remembered in mythology as a day when the gods, in their infinite wisdom, chose to provide a new boon to the faithful and a new boost to faith. Starting at dawn, every gift placed on any altar to any god throughout the country disappeared, leaving at most a lingering scent behind it. Many lessons were drawn from this great miracle, and many stories were retold among the people throughout the later centuries.
The Day was remembered rather differently by the gods themselves.
“Oh, this is just disgusting,” Valeria the Goddess of Mild Attraction announced, prodding the slab of raw meat lying on her altar with one dainty fingertip. She squeaked when juice squelched out of the steak, and leaped backwards as though it might bite her.
She collided right into her brother, Valerius the God of Ill-Advised Infatuation, who muttered, “Seriously, sis?” though he was no more pleased by the dead nightingale lying on his altar.
All around the Celestial Mansion, the gods were in chaos.
The 23 Principle Gods occupied the uppermost floor, the Penthouse of Power. Generally they were sociable enough, if a bit snobbish, but today they had disappeared into their penthouse and locked the door barely an hour past dawn.
The 752 Significant Deities, among them both Valeria and Valerius, shared the middle floors of the Mansion. This included the Atrium of Authority, where the 58 Significant Deities of Gradations of Affection had, as a group, secured a nice collection of window altars looking out on the Great Spiral of Eternity. Today, the view was little comfort.
The 17,412 Minor Divinities, crammed into the Mezzanine of Minor Might and overcrowded on a good day, were positively boiling with the upheaval caused by the sudden arrival of actual objects on their altars.
The 29,813 Unsubstantial Celestials, who occupied the Basement of Bare Ability, received so few offerings that they regarded the day as rather an interesting one, with far less distress than their mightier brethren.
But in the Atrium of Authority, there was no consoling the Significant Deities.
Marielle the Goddess of Unrequited Love had been stabbed by rose thorns when she tried to pick up the flowers on her altar, Jabo the God of Misplaced Jealousy was very upset that the steak on his altar was smaller than the one on Valeria’s, and Wylette the Goddess of Not Yet Committed But Definitely Interested Affection stood by her altar, covered with dead pigeons, and wrung her hands in uncertainty.
“I want everyone to just take a deep breath and try to get a hold of themselves,” Melna the Goddess of Serene Aspirations advised the room at large.
“This is no time to lead us in yoga,” Eleda the Goddess of Grudging Hospitality snapped. “Do you realize what an impact this will have on the day’s Feast?”
“At least it’s not a major holiday,” Milo the God of Half-Filled Water Vessels offered. “Only 97 gods have their Feast Day today.”
“98, actually,” Clatus the God of Calendars (not time, just calendars) corrected.
“If everyone would just be quiet,” Broughtean the God of Motorized Devices bellowed, “I am trying to fix this but I cannot concentrate!”
Broughtean and his team of 22 Significant Deities of Varieties of Machines had long since pushed all the clutter off of their respective altars, lifted up the altar slabs, and were looking for answers. Every so often a new offering would appear in the air where the slabs ought to have been, and fall on an unfortunate deity’s head.
The 63 Significant Deities of Forms of Faith felt this was taking the wrong approach to something that was obviously a faith issue, not a mechanical one, and had gathered in a prayer circle to reflect on whether anything had changed in the belief system of the people overnight. The 106 Trickster Deities were in a huddle, checking privately if any of them were responsible, determining they weren’t, and debating whether it would be advisable to take credit anyway. The 53 Significant Deities of Portions of the Home were trying to problem-solve, and were dissatisfied by the lack of aid coming from Jonius the God of Cookery.
“But I don’t know how to cook,” Jonius protested, “I only inspire other people to cook! And I can’t inspire any of you because you’re…well, you’re not my worshippers, you know.” He was backed-up against his altar as the other gods glared at him. It had already been stripped bare of its assortment of cooked items.
Alone among the gods, Jonius did not take raw offerings. His meager assortment of baked goods and roasts was, however, extremely inadequate for a Feast for 752 Significant Deities, even when supplemented by raw fruit from the Significant Deities of Agriculture.
It was at this point that Abigail, minor priestess of Felita the Goddess of Striped Cats, entered mythology and, more immediately, the Celestial Mansion. She appeared without warning sitting on the altar of Felita, in between the assortment of dead mice and saucers of cream, and stared around her with wide eyes.
“Wow,” she said softly, taking in the great vaulted ceilings, the marble pillars, the rows of altars stretching away into the distance, and the squabbling Significant Deities.
The voice of a mortal had not been heard within the Atrium of Authority for many centuries. Most heroes who attempted to enter the Celestial Mansion aimed for the Major Gods at the top, or stumbled into the Basement and got no further. This was an Event.
At Abigail’s single word, every Significant Deity fell abruptly silent, and turned to look at this intruder.
“Um,” Abigail said, and tried not to shrink where she sat. “Hello?”
“Just what do you think you’re doing here, girl?” Eleda the Goddess of Grudging Hospitality demanded. “This is the worst possible day for a visitor!”
“Ssstay back,” Felita the Goddess of Striped Cats hissed, rising to her feet and stretching languidly. She had decided to take a nap and wait for the business to blow over, but now maybe it was about to get interesting. “My priestess, my business.” She turned to the young mortal, and in gentler tones asked, “How did you get here, Abigail?”
The priestess took a deep breath, focusing on the tabby-striped goddess. “The offerings on all the altars started disappearing this morning at dawn. Everyone is saying that the offerings are going to the Celestial Mansion. And I thought, well…if everything on the altar disappeared, why not a person? Why not find out directly what’s happening?”
Felita purred in a low rumble of approval. “Curiosity. A good quality in a follower of mine.”
“Doesn’t curiosity kill cats?” Valerius the God of Ill-Advised Infatuation said a little too loudly.
“And satisfaction brings them back,” Felita spat at him. “Learn your myths before you quote them.” She turned back to Abigail, to find the priestess staring at Valerius with a mixture of attraction and doubt. She side-stepped in between them. “Stay away from that one, pet.”
In a faint voice, Abigail said, “I feel like I could really like him, but it would be a terrible idea.”
The comment had certainly been meant only for Felita, but Significant Deities have keen hearing. Valerius threw back his head and posed with his biceps showing to advantage. “I have that effect on all women.”
This remark was ignored by everyone.
“Now you’ve seen where the offerings are going, and seen the Celestial Mansion,” Felita said, “I’ll send you back home, pet. Be a good girl, keep the bowls of cream full, and stay away from dogs.”
“Wait!” Jonius the God of Cookery called before Felita could take any action. He pushed through the crowd to the front, squinted at Abigail. “Don’t I know you? Haven’t you left chocolate cookies on my altar?”
“Well,” Abigail said with an uncertain glance at the Goddess of Striped Cats, “I am sworn to serve Felita, of course, but I work in the Striped Cats Temple kitchen. So I make regular offerings at the Temple of Cookery too.”
“I knew it!” Jonius said triumphantly. “You know how to cook! Now—can you teach us?”
And so Abigail, minor priestess of Felita the Goddess of Striped Cats and assistant cook for the temple, spent the Day of the Miracle of the Vanishing Gifts giving cooking lessons. The 53 Significant Deities of Portions of the Home were so relieved to have an action to take that they threw themselves into cooking the various offerings with abandon. The 19 Significant Deities of Types of Flame were pressed into service for cooking, and the 11 Significant Deities of Types of Freezing happily learned to make ice cream for dessert. The day’s Feast, while unconventional, eventually came together with such success that even Eleda the Goddess of Grudging Hospitality cheered up.
While the cooking went on, Melna the Goddess of Serene Aspirations led many of the unoccupied Significant Deities in a breathing exercise, which further reduced the stress in the Atrium.
With the atmosphere calming, the 63 Significant Deities of Forms of Faith were able to concentrate on inspiring the belief among mortals that the Miracle of the Vanishing Gifts would end at sundown. Meanwhile Broughtean and the other 22 Significant Deities of Varieties of Machines soon believed they had found the problem causing the altar error, and were all happy to explain it at length to anyone who would listen, except that no one could understand it.
As the sun set on the westernmost portion of the country, the Significant Deities watched their altars with eager anticipation. When no new offerings appeared, but instead a variety of sweet scents and clouds of smoke formed at each altar, a cheer went up throughout the Atrium. In later days, both the Faith group and the Machines group claimed responsibility for successfully reversing the miracle.
“Time to go home now, pet,” Felita told Abigail. The Goddess of Striped Cats didn’t like the way the God of Ill-Advised Infatuation was winking at her priestess.
Abigail sighed wistfully. “It’s been much more exciting than cooking in the Temple kitchen.”
Felita flicked her long tail and with a sly grin said, “Oh, I think you’ll be getting promoted after this. And this whole business will give me much more clout among the Household Pets Deities for decades. So you can be sure good times are coming for the Striped Cats Temple. Now off you go.”
Felita twitched a whisker and Abigail disappeared in a shimmer of striped smoke, heading home to tell, for the first time, the story she would repeat for the rest of her life.
“She was definitely into me,” Valerius said, wandering back to his altar.
“You wish,” Felita purred, curled up on her altar, and resumed her long-interrupted nap.
“There were 48,000 gods in their mythology and not one…”
“… was cisgender. At least, not how humans define cisgender. With almost fifty unique gender identities, completely unrelated to the Vyyma’s four biological sexes, and almost limitless combinations of multiple sexualities and identities, their 48,000 gods don’t even represent every combination. We couldn’t come to a consensus as to whether the entire species would be transgender or if the terms are simply meaningless to describe them.”
The xenobiologist, Dr. Molloy, continued to discuss Vyyma culture, and I rolled my eyes. My human, nonbinary eyes. “This guy wouldn’t know fifty gender identities if they snuck up and bit him in the butt,” I mumbled.
“Care to share with the group?” The xenobiologist asked, tapping his stylus against his console screen.
I let out an exaggerated sigh. “Do you know how many gender identities humans have?” I asked him.
He shifted his feet. People around us mumbled. “And your name?”
I shrugged. “Mx. Cranston, if you will.”
“Ah, okay, Mx. Cranston. Besides man and woman, I know the nonbinary gender identity is a bit of an umbrella term for various sub-identities, so there is at least three, plus cultural gender identities like two-spirit people.”
“So are you going to say five or…?”
“How about… ten.”
“Dr. Molloy, I have seen documented over a hundred different human genders. Perhaps next time a species like the Vyyma is encountered, it can be categorized by people who understand the depth and complexity they are beholding instead of trying to cram everything into little boxes labelled ‘cis’ and ‘trans?’”
There was a long pause, as the xenobiologist stared at me through his glasses, no doubt trying to decide what part of me was obviously trans. The answer is all of it, and none of it, simultaneously.
“Perhaps, Mx. Cranston. Alas, I am going to finish my presentation now.”
“And I got a new profession to get into,” I mumbled. This time he just kept going.