The narrator shook his long grey curls. “When I lost my eyes, my sight became clearer,” he said. “I’ll tell you the real story. Listen!”:
The planet was Boeotia; the star was called Naso. You’ve never heard of them, for they’re both long gone. Sister planet Naxos swam in the evening sky, pale gold star against pale green evening. The galaxies glowed in the sky like wrought silver, and from the blue dusk until the bright morning three moons like apples kept watch over the people’s peaceful sleep.
In the capital city, New Thebes, pools and wide plazas lay flat as spilt glass. Towers were bathed in their own golden light, spinning fabulous webwork up toward the stars. Whether by daylight or under the moons, the city thrummed with ordered joy. Green and golden, it reflected back the colours of its people, with their bronzed skin and bright eyes; of the tall wheat waving outside the city walls; of the orchards that yielded the fair green apples from which the people distilled the city’s famous apple-wine. New Thebes loved music, scholarship and the arts; it prided itself upon its museums and opera-houses, its universities and its great Library.
For a thousand years the city had thrived, under sun and three moons. And from its farmsteads and schools, its market halls and fountain squares, flowed the rhythmed, steady music of a people, protected and prosperous, busy with study and labour and all the pleasures of life.
One morning a new stir blew into New Thebes. It blew in on the morning wind and did not stop to give its name to the guardians at the gates. It entered the city with the first fingers of sun, and made itself known by subtle, uneasy difference: a strange voice in the wind, a strange smell on the air, strange shapes in the flocks of birds that dipped and bowed and keened among the towers.
The governor of New Thebes was a man named Penthe. He had proved himself by good handling of crisis. He was known for his competence and his calm manner; a quietness that, even, some found unnerving. It was said that he knew a great many stories, and used this wide knowledge to make his decisions.
Penthe summoned before him his trusted policemen. They came, in good order, with green helmets on.
His chiefest inspector said, “We have a crisis.”
“I know,” Penthe said. “Tell me everything.”
“Sir, there is a new god loose in the city. His knowledge came in yesterday on the air. The people have no training, they have no resistance—they have all been infected by now—”
“I know it,” Penthe said. “What else do we know?”
“Yesterday, the people began to abandon the classrooms, the markets, their work in the fields. There is singing and dancing in the streets. Processions—though of course it’s no holiday here, and the dances don’t look like any dances we know. Wild clamour, shouting. Impromptu bells. Sir, the temples—”
“Go on,” Penthe said.
“Sir, a new plant has sprung up in the temples. New Thebes is a country of orchards and fields, but this—this is neither grain-grass nor tree. It coils and twists like snakes, wide enough to eat men, and it shatters the temples’ floors where it thrusts up. It overgrows the feet of the temples’ stone gods. It has dark shining leaves and dark purple fruit, and, sir, the fruit turns into wine in the hands. And when the people drink it, they laugh and exult; they cry out in worship. And then…
“Last night, the people rowdied under the moons. Orgies, bonfires. We have dark reports from the hills. When morning rose, New Thebes’ streets were scattered with glass; strewn with broken branches from the apple orchards. And smeared with purple from the new fruit—the colour of his strange wine; the colour of bruising, or blood.”
Penthe nodded, thoughtful. He fell silent.
The guards shifted their feet.
By Penthe’s chair stood a goblet of New Thebes’ gold apple-wine. Penthe lifted this, took a draught. He said: “Have you heard a name for this new god of theirs?”
“Symbol-names only. The people call him Liber, or Free.”
“And do you know what he looks like?”
“None of my men have seen him. He always keeps one step ahead of our search. But the people, describing him, say he’s a boy-god. Beyond that…” He hesitated. “Descriptions differ. Some say that he has the teeth of a serpent. Some say he looks like—many other things.”
Penthe nodded again. He considered the goblet. Then he set it down.
“My good men,” Penthe said, “go again to the city. Find me this boy who calls himself a god. He is now an invader of my city, and I must do my duty.”
The policemen went into the city and sought him. They searched for the boy in the slums and the taverns, the slip of a youth who was rumoured a god; and when they failed there, they searched high-rise and boardroom. They searched in the plazas and out in the fields.
At night they came back to Penthe, shaking green helmets. “God,” said the inspector, “kept one step before us.”
But they had found something, and this they presented.
Before Penthe they dragged a thin, dark-eyed ship’s pilot: a man who sailed often from Boeotia to Naxos.
Penthe inclined his head to him, gracious. “Let go of this man,” he said, “he cannot flee.”
The guardsmen bowed low, and stepped away. The man stood, heavy-chained, and waited.
Penthe put his folded hands under his chin. He considered the man who stood there before him.
“You are a ship’s captain, they tell me,” he said. “Plying the Naxos trade routes in a merchant vessel.”
The man bowed, as respectfully as the heavy chains would permit him. “In my former life,” he said, “I was what you say. Now I have given my life to the service of Liber, whose word I obey and whom I rejoice to serve.”
“Then,” Penthe said, “you are Liber’s high priest?”
“It is my honour to be called that by some. I hear the god’s voice with humility, and, with joy and respect, pass his word to the people.”
Penthe nodded. The man stood patiently, hands weighted down and feet hobbled by the heavy iron bars.
Penthe said, sadly, thoughtfully: “You do understand that I may have to kill you?”
The priest looked up sharply. Doubt and fear warred in his face.
“This city is slipping from my power,” said Penthe. “I say this because, I think, you already know.” He sat back, and pressed a button. Screens opened around the room: camera eyes showing the streets and squares of New Thebes.
“For the last two days,” Penthe said, “there has been no work in the city. There is dancing in the streets, there are drums and public orgies. But, more…” A screen brightened. “They are bleeding livestock on the Library steps. They are vandalizing the temples and museums. Last night, someone set bonfires in the orchards. A dozen people have died.”
The priest nodded politely, but he did not seem surprised. Penthe looked at him keenly.
“I do not know the will of your Lord,” said Penthe. “I don’t know his interest or desire here. But the city is falling into anarchy.” He gestured to the screens. “I will tell you what I believe. I think that our forefathers did not come so far to get to this place, to establish our laws, to forge peace and make art, to plow the fields of a hostile and unfamiliar soil, in order to now cede our city and our lives to chaos and forgetfulness.
“I do not accept the claims of your idol, your master—your Lord. I do not accept his divinity. And, even if he were divine—for I do know the world is full of things we cannot see—I do not accept the demands he makes: the loosening of our laws, our yielding of our place and principles to his worship. This is my city,” said Penthe, “and these are my people. And though you would give them over, I do not plan to relinquish Thebes to a strange boy from between the stars.”
“My lord,” said the priest-captain. His voice was humble, and his stance deferential. But behind his eyes burned something like the reflection of a fire. “When they first came here, our fathers slaughtered the serpent-people who once held the land. When we are gone, they may rise again from the soil. Our race was not born here, and we are not alone here, and it seems to me—indeed, it seems evident truth—that if something from between the stars wishes to lay claim to us and our city, it is only the justice of the universe at work.”
Penthe said, “But what lies on the other side of this? Will your master be happy when our towers have been torn down, and our pillars replaced by twisting vineyards? Will he abandon the wreck and fly on to another city, as gods will? What will he leave behind?”
The priest-captain observed him. He said nothing.
Penthe picked up his goblet of cool apple-wine. “I know stories like this,” he said. “It is difficult to tell who is right and who is wrong. But I sit here in this chair—and I have a job.” He gazed intently at the priest. “If I killed you, and hung up your penis and beard at the city gates, would the people come back to themselves? Would they abandon your boy-lord, shake off his madness, and pull up the strange vines that are polluting the soil and destroying the orchards?”
The priest said thoughtfully, “Perhaps. In your place, I might try the same thing.”
Penthe sighed. He looked old; his face was heavy. “I am not an evil man,” he said. “I do not relish killing. But I have seen religious zealotry before. It can destroy worlds.” The priest was silent. “I am the gardener of my people,” he said, “and if I can, I must root it out, like a wild vine from the earth.”
“If you can,” said the priest, quietly.
“If I can,” Penthe said.
He held his goblet, and raised his eyes to the priest. “Before what must happen happens,” he said, “I would like to hear your story. Everyone deserves that. Where did you come from—and your god?”
The priest-captain stirred in his chains. At Penthe’s look, the guards kept their polite distance. The priest, silent a moment, looked up at him and said: “I was a ship’s captain, as you know. Two weeks ago, on the familiar Naxos trade route, from the nameless darkness, we salvaged a drifting pod. Out of it stepped a barefooted boy. He was as dark as I am, and smooth-faced as a woman. He looked dreamily around him with open eyes. He stroked the walls of our little ship, and could not tell us his name.
“My men thought him the weak-minded son of some Naxos tycoon, and said we would demand ransom. But I felt my heart within me swell and bow to him, for in my heart I knew he was a god, and I told my men that we would set him free.”
Penthe touched his fingers together. “Go on.”
“My men mutinied. Never had this happened to me, in all my career!—but they were driven, and I could not stop them.
“But when they reached for the boy telling him he was their prisoner, he raised his girlish eyes to them and, as I stand here, our ship stopped moving. The stars froze outside our windows. The pilot cursed in fear—for it should have been impossible—but he could not start us up again.
“My men were terrified and angry. They tried to seize the boy, my lord; but as they did, I saw them change.”
“To terrible things, my lord. Beautiful, and strange. One became a great bird, with only stars where head and wings should be. One was a fish with a nebula pulsing in its throat, the size of my head. Others became serpents, my lord. Like the dragon people who lived on the land before New Thebes was here.
“The boy only looked, and they fell, or arced, or convulsed, and fell scaly and wild-eyed to the floor.”
It was Penthe now who listened in silence.
“And throughout the ship, my lord,” continued the priest, “there came terrible changes as well: when the boy touched a wall, it seemed to melt to darkness, and through it I could see the stars. Through floors and through windows came the ivy-vines plowing, twisting green round the bulkheads and engines. Grapes smashed purple against the bulkheads, grape juice leaked through all the instrument panels.
“I alone was uninjured. But I was afraid. He stood before me, crowned with green leaves, barefoot and laughing, and he said to me: ‘All your world is changing.’”
“What happened to your men?” asked Penthe.
“They were no longer men, my lord,” said the priest. “The fish twisted and the great bird beat its wings, and they leaped out through the holes into the sky. I expect they swim now among the stars, ugly and miraculous, and never seen before or again in the world of men.
“The boy looked at me amid the ivy and starlight. His eyes were clear and grey. And I will tell you, my lord, exactly what he said.
“He said: ‘Bring me to Boeotia. Bring me to New Thebes. Your city has lain peacefully a thousand years, sprouted from foreign seeds, and I have come to change it again into something entirely new.’
“And when we landed, I was his priest.”
Penthe looked at him silently. His face could not be read.
“You realize that everything you have told me is impossible,” he said.
“No more impossible, my lord,” said the priest, calm-eyed, “than a boy drifting in nowhere, come from nowhere, between the stars.”
Penthe nodded. He sat, brow furrowed deep in thought.
He closed his eyes once, and opened them. He made a gesture to his soldiers.
Quietly, quickly, the helmets drew near.
“We must keep this man until tomorrow,” he said. “Imprison him in the deepest cell, under triple guard. Make him comfortable,” he added. “Give him soft pillows, and wine if he likes it. New Thebes makes excellent apple-wine,” he said.
“I know it well,” said the priest-captain. “I grew up here.”
“The apple harvest has thrived, under my rule,” said Penthe. He stood up, smoothing the robes of office that hung over his narrow shoulders. He held them in his hands, and looked at them, as if something about them surprised him.
“I was stronger and younger, once,” he said.
“Our work wears on us all,” said the priest.
The green-helmeted soldiers took the priest’s arms and held him.
Penthe let the robes fall loose. “Can you make the people stop rioting, tonight?” he asked. “Can you contact your Lord? Tell him to stop. I would prefer not to have to hurt you.”
The priest shook his head. “I cannot make any such promise.”
“If there is more blood tonight, I will have to kill you tomorrow. I am sorry for it. But I must try to save my city.”
“With all due respect,” said the priest, “you cannot save this city from my Lord.”
“I must believe that I can,” said Penthe. “I must believe that my city will not be transformed by your god. I do not believe—I must not believe—in your new deity. I believe,” said Penthe, “in the beautiful city we have laboured a thousand years to establish, clearing our foes and learning the land. I believe that it will abide. I believe,” said Penthe, “that nothing that works, and functions, and is beautiful, needs to be transformed.”
He looked at the priest, and said, gently: “Except, sometimes, for men. And you we will transform tomorrow, into a warning. If we must.”
The priest met his eyes, and inclined his head. “You will do what you have to,” he said. “If you can.”
“Yes,” said Penthe. “If we can.”
The soldiers took the priest away, to the deepest cell of the dungeons. And Penthe stood, brow furrowed deeply, looking old. He looked around at his beautiful palace, which had been raised on foreign ground, and drank slowly from his cup of pale apple-wine.
The story grows shorter and shorter near sunrise. Before the first light, in the night lit by stars, the priest-captain’s manacles fell from his hands. The prison doors opened and he walked out free. Green and purple vines had pushed through the stone, smearing the walls with runes like blood.
As the sun rose over the city, Penthe took out his ceremonial sword, and gave orders to his men to sweep through the city, to seize and jail the revellers, to yank all the strange new vines from the fields. He himself, his face calm, took his own air car and went into the hills to speak to the revellers. But he found the boy there; and his own people transformed him; and with blood warmed by holiness and wine they tore his hands from his body, and by sunset his beard and his testicles swung by the city gates.
The people ran and sang revelling through the city. They made altars from concert halls and theatres from the libraries. They staged dramas that no one had ever seen before. Green and purple vines twined up round the towers and pulled them to earth, uprooted the statues and shivered the school buildings to pieces. From its silence and calm, everything became louder and stranger and shocking and wild—
—until New Thebes and all of Boeotia became known as a place of revels and strangeness, of unheard-of songs and undreamed-of mysteries, and its calm harmonious choirs had been transformed into something startling and different and new.
“And whether any people still live there, I do not know; or whether they have fallen back under the soil, and another nation risen from below.” The narrator lifted his hands and his blank, bright eyes. “Keep your money. My blindness lets me see the truth. If you’ve learned anything, let that be my payment! And the warning is this: Out here in the dark, we walk among the gods, and we are constantly becoming new. Don’t be confident you know who’s good and who’s wicked. Don’t be sure you know how any story ends. But if you recognize the god when next you see him, then give greetings from an old man in rags.
“And don’t be so proud, child; don’t walk so quickly, for you never know who you’ll be by tale’s end, nor does any man. Nor will you, until the last of the wine has been drunk and the song has been sung, and your body shot out to wander forever among the stars.”
Story copyright © 2018 by S.R. Mandel
Artwork copyright © 2018 by Derek Newman-Stille
S.R. Mandel is from San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, in that order. She has worked in northern France, central Japan, and the Middle East, and her writing has appeared in Apex, Shimmer, Strange Horizons, The Massachusetts Review, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, among other venues. She is very interested in things that manage to be one thing and also another thing at the same time. Tweet her at @susannah_speaks.
Derek Newman-Stille is a Queer, Disabled artist living in Peterborough, Canada. They are the eight-time Prix Aurora Award-winning creator of the digital humanities site Speculating Canada and are completing their PhD at Trent University, where they also teach in the Gender & Women’s Studies and English departments. They are the editor of the fiction collections Over the Rainbow: Folk and Fairy Tales from the Margins (Exile) and We Shall Be Monsters: Frankenstein at 200 (Renaissance Press).