Mon 1 Apr 2013
by Caroline M. Yoachim
Tripp got his first scrap of paper the day his mother died. He was four, and the paper was pure white. It was a rectangular sheet the size of his foot, folded into the shape of a feather. It came from the left wing of his mother’s god.
His mother died in the middle of winter, and it was so cold that the other kids crowded into the one big room of his mother’s house instead of waiting outside. All the kids who were old enough to have a chance at getting paper came, from eleven-year-old Warder all the way down to Smoke, who was a few months younger than Tripp.
Most of the kids played a gambling game as they waited, flicking small stones off of a big rock and trading scraps of paper depending on where their stones landed. From time to time the older kids would glance up at his mother’s bed, worried that she would wake up and yell at them for scattering stones all over her swept-dirt floor. They didn’t know whether Tripp’s mother would die from her illness, but Tripp was sure. This was the only time her god had ever stopped talking.
The god was perched on a piece of white plastic pipe that cut across the corner between two mud-brick walls. Its head was tucked beneath one wing. Tripp’s mother had no eye for color, and had taken any paper she could get. The parrot was, at least in Tripp’s eyes, one of the ugliest gods in the village. He was glad to have first pick from the paper when his mother died, because there was only one sheet worth having, and he was so small that if he had to fight for paper he’d likely get nothing at all.
His mother never woke before she died, never said a word to Tripp. Her spirit simply slipped away a couple hours before sunset. At the moment she died, the magic that held her parrot together ended. All the scraps of paper burst apart and fluttered to the floor. The children eyed the paper eagerly, but held back. No one else could take anything until Tripp had selected his one piece.
He walked along the edge of the room, careful not to trample any of the paper. He grabbed the white feather, and as soon as his hand closed on it, the room erupted in a frenzy of activity. The oldest kids emerged from the fray with armfuls of paper. Many of the younger children came out with nothing, for the parrot was not a particularly large god. Tripp was surprised to see Smoke clutching a tiny scrap of pink in her stubby fingers.
When the others had gone, Tripp unfolded his feather and smoothed out the creases. He put the flattened sheet into the collection box his mother had used when she was a girl. He vowed to collect more paper than she had, all in matching colors. His animal would be so fantastic that it would attract the most powerful of all the gods.
When Tripp was six, his uncle took him to see the wall of gods. It should have been his parents to take him, but his mother was dead and she had never spoken of his father.
“This is an important moment in your young life,” Uncle Sariff said. “You will not make your god until you are twelve, but you must collect your paper and plan. The sooner you choose the form of your god, the better.”
Uncle Sariff’s god was a monkey. It perched on his shoulder and picked through his hair as they walked to the temple.
“Different forms call to different gods,” the monkey said. “Think about what you want in a god, and choose carefully.”
The monkey gave good advice, but Tripp had trouble taking it seriously because it kept eating bits of fluff that it picked out of Uncle Sariff’s hair. He studied the road as they walked, so that he could avoid watching the disgusting monkey.
The temple was out beyond the outskirts of town, on a black-stone road that was built by the forsaken ones. Many years ago, the sides of the road were littered with ancient treasures. Even in his mother’s day, a little digging often turned up something useful. She’d found the white plastic pipe that her god perched on somewhere along the road.
The temple itself was a relic of those older times. The building was an enormous rectangle, with a vast expanse of black-stone spread all around it. Part of the roof had collapsed, but one room was completely intact — a room as big as Tripp’s mother’s house, with a large window made of glass. It was the biggest piece of uncracked glass that anyone in Tripp’s town had ever seen, even Granny Aura, who had seen a lot of things. On either side of the doorway that led to the wall of gods hung faded tapestries carefully embroidered with symbols that no one remembered how to read.
“Respect,” the monkey whispered as they approached the room. “Images of gods prefer silence.”
Uncle Sariff opened the door for Tripp, and he stepped into the temple. On his right was the window, stretching nearly the entire length of the wall. On his left was the wall of gods — every inch of its surface was covered in a strange material, white like paper and crisscrossed with black lines to form an uneven grid. Each box of the grid contained an animal, not a live animal, but not exactly a picture either. The entire wall writhed with the movement of animals scurrying or climbing, waddling or flying. A few animals slept, and others swam.
Several children sat quietly on the floor, studying the gods. Tripp made no move to join them, but instead walked right next to the wall, to get a closer look at the animals. Most were familiar — birds and lizards and small mammals. A few were grander gods, that Tripp had heard of, but never seen. After all, who could collect enough paper to make a rhinoceros? Even Tripp, only six years old, knew better than to attempt such a thing.
He shook his head as he walked, dismissing each animal as too grand or too plain, too ugly or too extravagant. Then something caught his eye. A small but prickly creature, covered in black spines with white tips. It was a god he had never seen in the town.
Tripp reached out to touch the wall, but before his fingers could brush up against it someone grabbed his shoulder and pushed him away.
“Don’t ever touch the wall of gods. Didn’t your mother teach you anything?” Uncle Sariff had never laid a hand on Tripp before, and though his voice was quiet out of respect for the temple, Tripp could tell that he was angry.
Tripp hung his head. He should have known better. He would be banned from the temple for weeks now, maybe more. As his Uncle pulled him away, he snuck one last look at what would one day be his god. He didn’t even know what the creature was called.
One look at his uncle was enough for him to know that this was not the proper time to ask.
As punishment, Tripp was forbidden from entering the temple until four years had passed. This despite the fact that he had not actually touched the wall. He supposed he should be grateful to Uncle Sariff for stopping him, since if he had actually touched the wall he might have been banned for life.
Still, his punishment was harsh. While the others studied their gods and planned their construction, Tripp got further and further behind, knowing only that he should collect his paper in black and white.
Smoke was some help to him. She was making good progress on her flamingo, and if she was feeling particularly generous she would sometimes study his god and answer his questions about some little thing. There was so much he still didn’t know, although he had finally learned his god’s name. Porcupine, his uncle said, a few months after Tripp had been banned.
Some children took several visits to the temple to decide on a god, and many changed their minds early on. But Tripp was sure. It was the perfect god, all in black and white, covered in thousands of long needles. To do it properly, he would need a lot of paper.
Four years passed slowly, and Tripp gathered black and white paper as best he could. He could not go to the temple and meditate on the plan for his god, but he knew that he was far short of the paper he needed. When he was finally allowed back into the temple, he sat respectfully on the floor with the other children and studied his god. His heart sank. His paltry supply of paper was nowhere near enough. Paper was hard enough to come by for children who took anything — he had spurned anything colorful, anything dirty, anything damaged or torn. Somehow he had to find more.
As he emerged from the temple, filled with despair, he saw Smoke walking down the dirt road, her canvas collection bag slung over her shoulder.
“I’m going to walk the road to the dead city, will you come?” Smoke asked.
It sounded like a waste of time to Tripp. He had planned to watch Kale assemble his god, in hopes that there would be scraps of paper that would not fit. Kale had given a scrap of paper to Autumn yesterday, when it was clear that he had no use for it.
“Most of Kale’s paper is green, you wouldn’t want it anyway,” Smoke said, guessing the reason for his hesitation. “We might find something you can use in the city.”
Smoke had a knack for getting him to do what she wanted. He didn’t mind, really. She wasn’t as bad as most of the other kids. Her eyes were even kind of pretty, colorless and gray. She caught him looking and made a face.
“Fine.” Tripp said. “But I call dibs on everything that’s black and white.”
Smoke considered his offer.
“I still need some black,” she said.
“Do you want me to come or not?” he replied. She didn’t answer. For a while neither of them moved. He wondered if there was really a lot of paper in the dead city. Finally he relented. “I get all the white, and half of the black.”
“Deal.” Smoke laughed. “I’m hoping for mostly pink, anyway.”
Smoke was going to make a flamingo. Tripp thought it was ridiculous, but you didn’t go around questioning other people’s gods. It was a strange choice, though. Everyone else wanted the best animal, the most paper, the powerful gods. Tripp had asked Smoke once, before he was old enough to know better, why she wanted a flamingo. She’d simply shrugged and said she thought it suited her.
It took them a couple hours to get to the dead city, trudging along on the black-stone road. Smoke chattered the entire time, but Tripp didn’t pay much attention. The abandoned buildings here were bigger than the ones in his village, but fewer of them were intact. Nearly all of them had collapsed, and the ground was covered in gray rock rubble and sparkling piles of shattered glass.
It was a terrible place to look for paper. He turned to tell Smoke as much, but she had vanished. He peered up and down the road. There was no way to move forward, with the mountains of debris blocking the way. There was no sign of Smoke behind him, on the road back home.
“There won’t be any paper up there,” she called. Her head was poking out of what looked like a window, cut into the concrete at the bottom of a pile of twisted steel beams. “I’m not handing over half the black if all you’re going to do is stand up there and gawk.”
He squeezed himself through the window. He took a few tentative steps past Smoke and into the middle of the room. His movement triggered some technology from the time of the forsaken, and suddenly the room was lit nearly as bright as outside.
He jumped backwards, bumping into Smoke in his haste to get back to the window. Smoke laughed. “Lily told me about this place, once she had enough paper. There’s a whole maze of rooms down here, and most of them still have lights!”
“You could have told me,” he grumbled, and started towards the nearest door.
Smoke ran up behind him and grabbed his arm. “Sorry. Lily laughed at me the first time I came. I guess it wasn’t that funny to me, then.”
She handed him a bit of chalk. “Mark your path with arrows or something, and don’t get lost. We have to meet back here in time to walk back to the village for supper, so don’t go too far.”
Tripp snatched the chalk and walked briskly away. Smoke called something after him, but he ignored her. She should have warned him about the lights. It wasn’t funny.
He had gone through several rooms before he realized he hadn’t marked his path. He knelt at the door he’d just come through and drew an arrow pointing back the way he’d come. He thought about backtracking to mark the rest of his path, but it since it was a straight line of doors he was reasonably sure he could find his way.
He looked around. Like most things from forsaken times, he couldn’t make heads or tails of the room he was standing in. It was filled with machines, tall boxy things with switches and display panels. None of them appeared to be working, although Tripp wasn’t sure he’d be able to tell if they were. Certainly they were quiet and dark, and none of them were moving. He stood on tiptoe and reached up to brush the top of one. His hand came away covered in dust.
The next room had more machines, although these were more varied in shape than the previous ones. There was a table made entirely out of metal, and a cylindrical bin woven from wires. The bin was empty, but Tripp rather liked the odd container, so he stooped to pick it up, and when he bent over, he noticed a tiny strip of black along the bottom of the wall.
Higher up, someone had hung a decorative piece of cloth, a quilt or a tapestry, not unlike the ones that decorated the entryway to the wall of gods. There, the wall hangings framed the door, and Tripp could see scratches on the floor where someone had moved a file cabinet to see if there was an opening next to the quilt. But whoever it was hadn’t thought to look behind the quilt itself. Tripp pried one side of the quilt away from the wall, carefully placing the metal fasteners on top of the file cabinet.
He smiled to see the black door against the white wall. A hidden treasure, black and white, as though it was put there just for him.
When the lights came on in that next room, Tripp dropped the bin to the floor. The metal clanged against the tiles, but Tripp hardly heard it. One of the walls was lined with shelves, and one of the shelves was full of books.
Books. Each with hundreds of sheets of paper inside. He had never seen one before, he’d only heard the stories Granny Aura told. But they were unmistakable. The whole room even smelled of musty paper. It was intoxicating.
He ran back to get Smoke, carefully marking the entire path with arrows to be absolutely sure they wouldn’t lose the way to the treasure.
“It’s a holy place, we shouldn’t touch them.” Smoke said.
“No one has been here in a long time.” Tripp had been too excited to think it through, but of course Smoke was right. At some point, this had been a holy place. Otherwise why would it be behind the quilt? “And it’s a lot of paper.”
Smoke sat on the floor and studied the books, much like everyone studied the gods at the temple.
“We came here to find paper.” He wheedled. “And now that we’ve found it you don’t want it?”
“It doesn’t feel right to take them,” she answered. “Lily found a few loose scraps, I thought it’d be more like that. These are books. Do you actually think you could take one apart just to get the paper out?”
Tripp marched up to the shelf and pulled down a book. He opened it, and before he had a chance to think about it, he carefully pulled on the first sheet, slightly yellowed with age, but definitely white. It came free from the book with an ugly ripping noise. He stared at the jagged-edged sheet of paper in his hand, his emotions a mixture of pride and regret.
Smoke was nearly in tears. She ran from the room and out of sight. Tripp sighed. He placed the mutilated book into the wire bin he’d taken from the other room, and then stacked several other books in with it. There were still dozens of others on the shelf, but once Tripp returned with his loot the other kids would find this place and raid it for paper. One of the books on the lower shelf caught his eye. The cover was pink, and sure enough some of the pages inside were printed with pink castles and peachy-pink butterflies. His bin was full, but he took out one of his precious black-and-white books to make room for the pink monstrosity. He wanted Smoke to have something for helping him find all the books, even if she had gone all soft once they’d found them.
The town hall was packed full of every adult in the village, and, of course, their gods. Everyone was seated in no particular order, and gods slithered or scampered or flitted about, sometimes pausing to whisper something to their humans or to each other. Children, being godless creatures, were not normally allowed in the hall, but since Tripp and Smoke had found the books, they were permitted to stay.
“The books shall be displayed in the temple, alongside the wall of gods.” Tripp’s uncle was with the group that favored preserving the books intact, and his monkey was proclaiming such to anyone who would listen, as though it had already been decided.
Granny Aura’s guinea pig sidled up to Tripp. “Books?”
Tripp nodded, unsure of what the guinea pig was after.
“Books,” the guinea pig mused. “Books books books. Paper bound, blocked like bricks, boring boring block-bound bricks.”
Tripp continued nodding, hoping the guinea pig would leave.
“Free the bound! Break the bricks! Set them free and hope it sticks!”
Granny Aura, perhaps noticing Tripp’s discomfort, came to collect her god. “She gives good advice,” Granny said, “but she can get a little over-excited sometimes.”
The meeting went on for hours, with Granny Aura and her followers calling for the paper to be used to freshen the supply and make god-bodies, and Uncle Sariff and his lot calling for the books to be preserved and worshipped. In the end, it was the preservationists that won out, over the screaming protests of Granny Aura’s guinea pig.
Tripp handed over the books that he had brought back from the dead city. All of them but two — the book that he had damaged and Smoke’s pink book were hidden safely away in his mother’s old abandoned house, under the bed where she had died.
Tripp saved the books, his and Smoke’s, until the spring before they turned twelve. He knew that Smoke had mixed feelings about the book, but he wanted her to take it. He waited to give it to her until he was sure she would need the pink paper to make her Flamingo.
“I don’t want it.” Smoke stared at the book in his hand, refusing even to touch it. He should have expected her response, but he had hoped that once the other books were in the temple she’d be more enthusiastic.
“You need pink,” he said, “this has pink.”
“I won’t destroy it.”
He could see that she meant it. Still, there was no way Smoke would have enough paper to make the god she wanted if she didn’t take it. He didn’t want her to have an ugly patchwork god, like his mother’s. She was the only one in the village who was nice to him, and she deserved a pretty god. So Tripp took the little pink book back to his mother’s house and used a knife he borrowed from his Uncle to carefully slice out each individual page.
He worked methodically, cutting a dozen or so pages at once, concentrating on keeping the cuts clean and straight. He put the pages in a neat stack. Then he looked at the cover and nearly burst into tears. He had cut the pages as close to the cover as he could, but thin strands of paper clung to the spine. When he had torn the single page from his book, it had looked much the same afterwards, once the book was closed. But this was different. The cover was empty, and it closed in on itself, mangled, hollow, incomplete. He resisted the urge to shove the papers back in. The paper would have new life in Smoke’s flamingo. How could that be wrong? Granny Aura’s god had wanted it that way, paper was better used than sitting bound in a book.
His hands trembled as he carried the paper down the road to Smoke.
She took it from him.
He waited for her to speak, but she said nothing. She stared down at the stack of paper with a sad expression, as though what she held was not precious pink paper but some sort of dying god.
“I thought. . .” He wanted to explain how she ought to have the best paper, the prettiest pink, so that she could make a beautiful god, but the words seemed shallow and empty in his mouth.
She shook her head and walked away without ever having spoken a word.
The last months before his godsummer were lonely. Smoke had been his only friend, and she wouldn’t speak to him now.
He sat near her when she studied the god wall at the temple, and of course they both went to collect paper when Parna died. Tripp was lucky enough to grab several sheets of black paper, but when he tried to give one to Smoke she refused to take it.
When summer finally came, Tripp and Smoke and the village’s four other twelve-year-olds buried themselves completely in the tedious task of building bodies for their gods. They all sat together in the town hall, a space too big for a group so small, and rolled and folded and smoothed their papers into shape. Adults came in to monitor their progress, and some days younger children came to watch, in hopes of a scrap of unused paper.
Day in and day out the twelve-year-olds sat together in silence, their god-bodies growing larger in front of them and their piles of paper shrinking behind them. Tripp often watched Smoke work as he rolled his paper. His god was mostly quills, which required a lot of rolling. The work was mindless, once he got into a rhythm. Black quills tipped with white, roll and roll the paper tight. He packed the paper rolls close together all around his god body, rolled so tight they were sharp. His fingers were laced with tiny cuts from the rolling and pinprick dots where he’d jabbed himself on the quills. Here and there the white paper bore stains of his blood, but his god would make its body pure, once it was summoned. It would absorb the blood and that would only serve to bind them closer.
Smoke, unlike Tripp, never looked up from her god. She worked carefully, but quickly, her hands flying over her paper to shape intricate feathers in shades of peach and pink and white. Tripp had seen her god on the wall, and thought it a gangly, awkward sort of beast, but in person it looked tall and stately, with long legs and a neatly curved black beak. Even the color was not so terrible. Tripp looked for the paper that he had given to Smoke, but could not find it in among the feathers.
For several days he watched for it, as he rolled his quills, packing them over the body of his god while Smoke mirrored his work in pink feathers. Even when she had finished, there was no sign of the paper he had given her.
He had destroyed a book for her, and she hadn’t even used it.
Her work finished, she sat quietly in the hall. Even without work to draw her attention away, she did not look at him.
Finally, without her flamingo to distract him, he focused on his god-body. In his inattention, he had packed his quills too close together. The effect was actually rather nice, it made the body of his god look fuller and more elaborate. But the effect on his paper supply was devastating. He had rolled far too many quills, and he had only a few dozen sheets of paper left to make legs for his god. Not nearly enough to support the over-packed quill-heavy weight of its body, and there was still a bare spot near the tail that needed more quills.
Worse, he was running out of time.
He laid out his remaining sheets, trying to think what to do. There wasn’t enough time to thin the quills and unroll them and press them flat and use them for legs. There wasn’t enough paper to make four legs. Or even two. He had enough to make a single leg, and what good would that be?
He rolled his last precious sheets of paper into quills and filled in the bare patch on his god-body’s tail. He wondered if anyone had ever created such a pitiful body before, and whether anyone had ever done so poorly as to not attract a god at all. He was so absorbed in this line of thought that he didn’t notice Smoke approaching until she touched his elbow.
“Here,” she said. It was the paper he had cut from her book, still neatly stacked and untouched.
It was pink.
He shook his head. He didn’t want the sort of god that would inhabit a pink-legged porcupine; he would rather carry his god wherever it wished to go. He hoped that there was a god that would understand his choice, and be willing to inhabit a legless body.
The disembodied gods began to arrive at sunrise on the last day of summer. They examined each of the god bodies in turn — Smoke’s flamingo, Tripp’s legless porcupine, Pike’s rainbow patchwork crow, Coral’s potbelly pig, and the twins with their matching set of geckoes.
Outside of any body, the gods were like smoke or mist, hazy wisps that drifted about, sometimes suggesting a human form, other times looking more like one animal or another. They were graceful, and at dawn the room was filled so full of them that Tripp couldn’t see the ceiling or the walls.
But very quickly some gods decided that they didn’t fit the bodies that were offered. Soon the air began to thin, as hundreds of gods became dozens, and dozens dwindled down to ten. Two gods were particularly intrigued by the matching geckoes of the twins, and as they were without competition, they settled in, one in each body, and their respective humans splintered off a piece of their soul to bind the god to the body and the body to themselves.
Two gods were interested in the potbelly pig, and they hovered for a moment in front of Coral before somehow settling the dispute. One drifted off, and the other became Coral’s god.
Two gods wanted the patchwork rainbow crow as well, although Tripp had no idea why. It was an ugly thing, with bright and garish colors that didn’t match. They too settled their dispute, with one taking the body and the other drifting away. Neither of the losing gods even came to look at his body before leaving, and there were only four gods left.
All four of them were gathered around Smoke’s flamingo, and these were more persistent or more stubborn than the others. Here, at least, Tripp could see that the god-body was worth fighting for. The flamingo was beautifully made with paper carefully matched and different shades of pink and peach scattered just right to make the body look natural. It had a subtlety that the patchwork crow lacked, that even his own god body would not have attained even had he managed to finish it. And Smoke, of course, would be a good human to have, if one were a god.
When none of the gods showed any signs of leaving, Smoke approached them. She whispered something, and two gods left. Neither came to Tripp’s legless porcupine. After a long pause, Smoke selected one of the two remaining. It swooped gleefully into her flamingo, and the remaining god hovered. Slowly, sadly, it came to hang before Tripp.
Tripp looked over at Smoke, but she was busy binding her god. What had she whispered, to make the first two leave? Had she coerced this god to come to him, if it was not chosen for her flamingo? He did not want an unwilling god, but he had little choice. It was this god or none at all, and he bound it to his pathetic legless porcupine.
“Take me to the dead city,” Porcupine said.
“Why?” Tripp asked.
“Because I don’t have legs to walk there myself.”
Tripp sighed. “I meant why do you want to go.”
Porcupine didn’t answer, and Tripp picked him up and put him on the newly-constructed wagon. “What do you think?”
“The wood is a little hard.”
“I’ll try to find a blanket.”
All Tripp’s agemates had bonded well with their gods, and they were comfortable with each other’s presence. Tripp, on the other hand, could never escape the guilt he felt for trapping a reluctant god in a legless body. It didn’t help that Porcupine was always bringing it up.
He walked to the dead city, pulling Porcupine in a wagon behind him. Porcupine made a big show of moaning and groaning any time there was even a slight bump. When they passed the temple, Porcupine said, “let’s go in. I want to look at the wall.”
Porcupine loved to look at the diagram on the god-wall that showed what he was supposed to look like. He sighed over his missing legs, and took no comfort from the fact that his quills were far lovelier than what was shown in the picture.
“Do you want me to take you to the dead city or not?” Tripp asked.
“Fine.” Porcupine said, then mumbled, “I am a god, you know.”
They walked in silence after that, until they got to the building where he and smoke had found the books.
“I want to go in.” Porcupine said. “You’ll have to carry me.”
Tripp picked up his god and carried him down through the narrow window that opened underneath the jumbled steel bars and concrete rubble. He took Porcupine through the maze of rooms until they found the door behind the tapestry, and went inside. The books were gone, of course — all taken back to the temple where they could be worshipped.
“This is where you found them?” Porcupine asked.
Porcupine sniffed the air and studied the shelves. “Only one shelf with books, you said?”
“That one.” Tripp pointed it out.
“There were more. On other shelves.”
“No –” Tripp began.
“Oh yes. There were lots. I can smell them.”
Following Porcupine’s directions, Tripp went deeper into the forsaken building. Porcupine was awkward to carry, and his arms were soon covered in tiny pink lines where the quills scratched his skin.
Mostly, Porcupine led him down. There were stairways scattered here and there through the mazes of rooms, and they would travel down a few flights on one, then it would be blocked off and they would find another.
Tripp saw room after room of tall block-shaped machines. The ones up high were silent, but as they descended some of them were humming slightly.
“This one is mine,” Porcupine said, forcing Tripp to stop for several minutes beside a machine that looked exactly like all the others. What connection Porcupine had to that particular machine, Tripp didn’t know, but he had no choice but to wait since he hadn’t brought any chalk and he couldn’t remember how they’d gotten down here.
At last they moved on, winding through several more machine-rooms until suddenly they came through a doorway into the biggest open space that Tripp had ever seen. It was filled with shelves, and the shelves were full of books.
“There must be a million sheets of paper down here. Ten million, maybe,” Tripp said, awed.
“Yes.” Porcupine answered. “We used to call places like this libraries.”
They stood staring at the books.
“You can use them to make more gods.” Porcupine said.
“Yes, why should you have only one? You saw the machines, there are plenty of gods waiting.”
“But how would I bind them? I only have so much self, and I must use a piece to tie my god to its body.” Tripp puzzled through his thoughts, speaking them aloud. “And besides, a god can only be made in a human’s twelfth summer, and called on the last day of summer.”
Porcupine snorted. “I don’t know where that started. Gods can take a body at any time, and they needn’t be bound to humans. But that’s no matter. There’ll be plenty of time for that later. First I’ll need my legs.”
Tripp looked down at Porcupine, who he’d set down on the floor. It was forbidden to add to your god body once it held a god, but was that restriction merely to make sure the children had enough paper? For here was paper enough to make an army of gods, and Porcupine needed legs.
“I think they should be black.” Porcupine said.
Tripp had hoped that once Porcupine was complete he would be less whiny, but apparently complaining was simply a part of his nature. The new legs were sturdy and held Porcupine up off the ground, but there was something wrong with them — they didn’t move. In between long tirades about the sad state of his defective legs, Porcupine berated Tripp to work faster at building new gods. Tripp was going as fast as he could — after a bit of exploring they had found a short route to the surface, and now he only stopped to go up and find food, or relieve himself, or to go to the temple and study the diagrams on the wall of gods. He even slept in the library. Working like this, he could make a god in a week.
The first god he made, on Porcupine’s instructions, was a monkey.
“He’ll have hands,” Porcupine explained. “So he can help you make the other gods.”
Most of the books in the great library were black text printed on yellowing white paper, and the monkey was made entirely from this. From a distance he looked yellowish gray, which Tripp thought was rather unappealing. Worse, the monkey did not move. Porcupine was furious, but he insisted that Tripp keep working.
More animals followed, getting bigger and grander as they went — a poodle and a bobcat, an ox and a horse and a cow, a striking black-and-white zebra, and finally an elephant so large that Tripp had to move a few of the shelves out of the way to make room for it. How it would get out, Tripp didn’t know, but Porcupine had become quite confident in his instructions, and Tripp felt like he was finally making up for his failure to give Porcupine legs.
But the new animals, small and large, remained stiff and lifeless, and not a single disembodied god came to look at them.
“You’re missing something.” Porcupine said.
“Maybe we have to go to the town hall?” Tripp asked. “Or it’s just the wrong time. We always call the gods in the summer, and it is winter now.”
Porcupine kept at him to build more gods, and Tripp did the best he could, although now his fingers hurt from all the tiny cuts, and his eyes hurt from working all the detailed folds in the dim light of the underground room. Still he kept working and working until finally he was interrupted by a familiar voice.
“Oh, Tripp.” Smoke stood at the entryway, ignoring the many shelves of books and instead looking only at the animals that Tripp had made. Her flamingo stood behind her, craning its neck this way and that to take in the room.
“It’s the porcupine’s fault,” the flamingo said.
Porcupine bristled and hissed, but since his legs couldn’t move, the threat was empty.
“Do you know which one is his?” the flamingo asked. “Which of the machines?”
Tripp tried to remember. They had not returned to that room after the first time, but there would be tracks in the dust. He backtracked along their trail until he found it, leaving Porcupine behind in the room with all the books.
“They sent me here to find you,” Smoke said, softly. “Some of them are angry, but the others are only worried for you.”
“Which are you?” Tripp asked.
Flamingo was circling the machine, much as Porcupine had. Then he began to peck furiously against the casing with his beak, making a frightful clanging noise that echoed through the room. The casing fell away to reveal a tangle of brightly colored wires.
“Don’t do it, Flamingo, it’ll hurt the boy.” Porcupine called from the library.
“Is that true?” Smoke asked.
“Yes,” the flamingo answered, “but the boy is already hurting.”
“What will happen to me?” Tripp asked. “What about Porcupine?” Porcupine wasn’t a very good god, but he was his god.
“You will lose the part of yourself that binds him. He will lose all of himself.”
“Because we tried to make other gods?”
“It is not the way of things. One human and one god, bound together at the height of summer. What he wants will destroy the balance of the world.”
“So you will destroy him? There must be another way.”
“He cannot be allowed to build an army. When summer comes, the gods will take the bodies you have made, and they will remake the world to suit them. It has happened before.” Flamingo said.
“And why do you care, if you’re a god too?” Smoke asked.
“Because I am your god, and I am part of you and you are part of me. If Porcupine gets his way, both of us will be destroyed.”
“What if I just destroy the other god-bodies, and stop building new ones?” Tripp asked. He didn’t want to harm Smoke, but it didn’t seem fair to hurt Porcupine either, even if he was whiny.
“Porcupine would find a way to convince you again.”
“I will leave him here.” Tripp said.
“That would be worse than what I want to do — such a solitary existence might not be the mercy you intend.”
“He should have the choice,” Tripp said. “I will ask him.”
Back in the library, Tripp explained to Porcupine. “He’s wrong,” Porcupine sulked, “it wouldn’t hurt Smoke, or you, or anyone.”
Tripp wanted to believe his god, but he had known all along that building the other animals was wrong. Porcupine had led him down the wrong path, and now he had to make it right. “You have to choose, Porcupine. Stay here in the library, or let flamingo break the machine?”
“I don’t want to die,” Porcupine whispered.
“Then I won’t let them kill you.” Tripp replied.
Tripp took apart the paper god bodies sheet by sheet, smoothing each paper and stacking it in tidy piles on the library shelves. Last of all he took back Porcupine’s legs, though he wished he could leave his god at least that much. Smoke and her flamingo watched them closely the entire time, to make sure that Porcupine did not regain his influence.
When all the work was done, Porcupine said, “I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to stay here.”
“If you do not stay, we will destroy you,” Flamingo said.
Porcupine turned his attention to Tripp. “Flamingo says I must be killed, because I would have killed people. But I never killed anything. We made things, you and I. Beautiful things. We could remake them, all the grandest animals to house the most magnificent gods –”
“No, Porcupine,” Tripp said. He had wanted that, once. He had spent his entire childhood dreaming of the perfect animal and the most fantastic god, but he had never meant for things to come out like this. He was surrounded by the evidence of his bad choices. Stacks of paper filled the shelves and empty book spines littered the floor. And still, in the midst of it all, was Porcupine, urging him even now to build more bodies.
Tripp looked at Smoke and Flamingo, waiting quietly for him to decide. He barely knew Flamingo, and yet already he trusted Flamingo more than he trusted his own god. Or maybe he simply trusted Smoke more than he trusted himself. They both knew that Porcupine was too dangerous, and that Tripp was too easily influenced. Tripp forced himself to admit it, and to say aloud, “I’m sorry, Porcupine. If you don’t want to stay locked away down here, we have to destroy you.”
“Destroy me, then,” Porcupine said. “I have backups, stored on machines all around the world. All I will lose is this sorry excuse of a body.”
Flamingo went to Porcupine’s machine, but Tripp stopped him.
“He is my god, I will do it. Tell me how.”
So he followed Flamingo’s instructions, pulling wires here and there, and when he was finished, he felt that bit of himself that held him to Porcupine dissolve away. He ran back to the library for a final goodbye — misguided as he was, Porcupine was still his god — but when he got there all that remained was a pile of paper.
Tripp walked back along the black-rock road with Smoke and Flamingo, keenly aware of his missing god. “It was my fault as much as his. I trapped him in a broken body. If he had been whole, he might have been content.”
To his surprise, Smoke put her hand on his shoulder. “When the gods came on the last day of summer, I did something foolish. I saw that none of the gods had chosen your porcupine, and so many wanted my flamingo. So I asked that whichever one I didn’t choose go and be your god.”
Flamingo stopped and gave her a hard look.
“Flamingo told me later that it wasn’t a request, but a command,” she said, “but I didn’t know that at the time. I thought I was asking. Either way, it’s my fault that your god was trapped in a broken body. Your god was so sure that I would choose him, he was willing to risk being stuck in a broken body.”
Tripp turned to Flamingo, “And you were also sure?”
“No,” Flamingo said, “I hoped for Smoke, of course, but I am not like Porcupine. I would have gone to you willingly if Smoke would not have me.”
Tripp wondered what it would have been like, to have Flamingo as his god. It didn’t matter, he supposed. Now he would be the only adult in the village without a god at all. “And now I’m broken, just like Porcupine was. I lost a piece of my soul and I don’t even have a god. I don’t know why I’m even going back. No one will want a godless man in their village.”
“You destroyed your god because you knew it was the right thing to do. There will be at least some people who appreciate that.” Smoke said. She reached out and held his hand. Even before Tripp had a god, his obsession with building the perfect god had gotten in the way of his friendship with Smoke. He’d lost his god, but regained his friend.
There was a town meeting not long after he returned. Tripp was not allowed inside to attend the meeting, but when the council had reached a decision, they called him in.
“It isn’t right to have a godless man in our village,” Granny Aura began, and Tripp’s heart fell. He stared at the old woman. Her guinea pig grinned up at him from her feet.
“We cannot have a godless man,” Granny Aura repeated, “but we will give you a second chance to make your god.”
Granny Aura beckoned, and Smoke stepped into view. In her hands she held a stack of paper.
“The only condition is that you must only use the paper that you had available to you on your twelfth summer,” she continued, “and you must use all of that paper.”
Granny Aura’s guinea pig, no longer able to contain itself, bounded over to Smoke and did an excited little hopping dance around her legs. Smoke smiled at Tripp, but also fanned out the paper so that he could see, in the middle of the stack, the pink paper she had offered him when all his black and white was gone. It had been available to him then, and he would have to use it now.
Strangely, the idea of a partly pink god no longer bothered him. He accepted the conditions of the council, and when the summer came, he sat amongst the twelve-year-olds, and built himself a god.
He made another porcupine, for there had been little time to plan and a porcupine was the only body he knew that used the right amount of paper. It would be another layer to his punishment, to look each day upon the god he had once destroyed. He packed the black-and-white quills tight around its body, and used the pink paper from Smoke to make short sturdy legs. It was not as beautiful as Smoke’s flamingo, but it was whole, and when the gods came to choose their bodies, one of them selected it.
At his new porcupine’s suggestion, Tripp collected all the paper from the disassembled army of gods. It was hard work, but rewarding to think that he was making up for his past mistakes. Every day for months on end, Tripp walked back and forth from the city, carrying stacks of paper in his basket made of wire mesh. He moved the paper to a small storage room in the temple, to be shared out amongst the village children. Even Uncle Sariff agreed that the paper should be put to use since the books had already been destroyed. With Porcupine’s encouragement, Tripp labored without complaint until it had all been moved — ten million sheets of paper, all in black and white.
Copyright 2013 Caroline M. Yoachim
Caroline M. Yoachim is a writer and photographer living in Seattle, Washington. She is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and was nominated for a Nebula Award for her 2010 novelette, “Stone Wall Truth.” Her fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Lightspeed, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.