In the grey mist of dawn, the old sculptor stared up at me and I stared back. It seemed only yesterday that his filmy eyes were bright and blue, so much like his father and his great-grandfather before him whose tender hands had drawn me out of stone into the world. Each had passed to his children his knowledge of stonework, but of all their sundry creations, I was their trophy. They had set me high up here, soaring motionless atop my lotus pedestal. They had placed the mountains at my feet. As I watched the eagle’s flight, the dart of swallows over the smattering of pagoda roofs below, I did not measure time, but I noticed the roofs’ curved clay tiles turning from red, to brown, to grey. Men and women came and went, even as their dwellings multiplied and displaced the trees, scarring the face of the mountain with their temples and pavilions. They were a sophisticated race, these people, deft-fingered and proud of their architecture and art, the work of their hands.
In the beginning, I felt.
A small fountain flowed from a lotus flower in my palm, and I harped in silence to its music. Koi flicked their fins beneath me and birds flirted with my marble sleeves. I was one of them, water, stone, earth, air—I made no distinction, because I did not yet know what I was. In summer the fireflies set the pond aglow, flashing like life itself about my inert feet, and I thought I could fly, like them. It made no difference that I didn’t, because I was drinking in the world. I took joy in its noise and movement, studied the erratic flights of falling stars, the place of chaos within a larger pattern. There was a song that governed the rhythms of the sun and moon, I learned. There was light, and there was darkness. By these rhythms, humankind split their lives into distinguishable units whose succession one after another they called time.
The darkness claims everything, eventually. It can come gently, like a loving mother, or violently, like a storm. I heard it again when it called the old sculptor. If it was his end, was it also his beginning—the hand that sculpted him? I heard its song pulsing through his blue veins, thrumming through his paper skin. Day by day another piece of his flesh failed him and gave in to decay, until he gave up praying to me for health and longevity. I wanted to tell him that no one can command the darkness. I myself had waited many human lifetimes, but it had never called me. I had given up waiting.
The day before he died, the sculptor stretched out a withered hand and touched my feet. As generations before him had, he offered me three sticks of incense, and bowed three times. From what I’d learned, he would be given to the fire. His flesh would slough off his bones, his bones would crumble, and he would be poured into an urn. I often wondered how it felt like, the body devoured in one scorching blaze. If it would feel like anything at all. I wondered, a little sadly, what pain is.
Later, when there was nothing of him left but ash locked up in stone, his children and grandchildren would bow to him. He would no longer be there to hear them, but if he could, perhaps he would laugh at them, as I did. Foolish mortals, honouring their dead as if they were immortal. Having to pretend for their own sanity that the darkness does not exist.
They do not know what they have.
Whatever they have, there was one who had it in abundance. In the dead of winter my maker’s great-great-great-granddaughter was dragged kicking and screaming from the darkness of her mother’s womb, and her first yell, they say, was so strong that the crows dropped dead outside the window.
They named her Xue, snow. The end of life, or its secret blossoming. Mispronounce it slightly and it could mean “blood.” Say it with an upward lilt and it could mean “learn.” And she was always learning, this child. She learned to laugh early, and from then on she never stopped sticking her round little nose into things, asking all the wrong questions and laughing at all the answers.
The darkness loved her. She was one of its favourites, you might say. Even before she opened her eyes it clung to her, staking its claim in blue-black splotches on her skin, just around her left ankle. They were small at first, but spread more quickly over the years, as if the darkness couldn’t wait to have her. Physicians came and left shaking their heads. Incurable, the family whispered, as if to say it out loud would make it more true. And because they worshipped me for powers they thought, or wished, I had, her parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts entreated me with tears and wails, trying to bribe me with their best sweets and meat to keep the darkness at bay. Their prayers and offerings gave me an inflated sense of myself, made me think I had, at the very least, some power. Not the kind that could move me from my stage, but after all, if the darkness couldn’t take me, didn’t that mean I was greater than it? By sheer will I would keep Xue alive.
Unlike me, Xue was wise enough to be humble.
Xue understood her destiny. She felt the disease lurking in her body, and carried it like an old familiar. In the mirror, she saw it gently strip her of her long, black hair, the splotches swarming up her stubby legs to rake her scalp. When she grew old enough to understand what it was, she wept. Her tears were not weakness but strength, released with the same unfettered emotion as her laughter. She did not rage; there was no time for that. She watched the darkness hew her cheeks into sharp white cliffs, so that she looked like she was perpetually smiling, and not once did she pray to shirk it. In fact, perhaps it was because her every breath was limned in darkness that she was determined to glow so brightly.
I hated her.
Under the brief flare of her existence, the everyday shone with significance. Every look, every touch bore the weight of the ephemeral. When her father sobbed over her, she took his hand and closed her eyes as if in pain—or in bliss. Her muscles as she leaned against him were soft, unresisting. By then they were already rapidly weakening.
That she knew how to yield, however, did not mean she did not know how to fight.
She laughed, ran and jumped, until she couldn’t. That was her way of fighting, yielding to the shadow in the horizon by throwing her life into the world with as much force as she had the night she was born. And when she learned to flute, she never stopped. She would sit beside me, the little goddess of the family, and sigh through her slender bamboo pipe, flinging her airy voice over the mountains the way she wanted her ashes to be flung.
One morning, while chasing a silvery dragonfly that landed on a lily pad, she stumbled. Her arms flew out, grasping air. Her fingers scrabbled for balance, and she knocked me from my plinth.
Blue arced above me. In it an eagle wheeled, a shadow against the sun. A beat of wings and it was gone; I was blinded. I flew through a sea of hot white light. I felt the rush of time. Then a crash, a juddering, and darkness.
Grass scratched my cheek. A grey lotus petal chafed one half of my cracked face, the water that used to gush from it now puddling in the soil, wetting my cheek. Other pieces of me lay scattered around, forming a loose, crumbling cocoon through which a thin ray of sunlight stabbed my eye.
Through my bewilderment, I heard cries of dismay. Xue apologizing in a subdued voice, shuffling her feet. Her mother scolding half-heartedly, her grandmother exclaiming with an agitation of hands, then sighing and mumbling alright, alright, it was time to get a new god anyway. Perhaps they would get a different one this time, a goddess of mercy instead of a god of life and death.
No one ever had the heart to discipline Xue with any severity. And perhaps I had long lost importance in the family, standing there only as a relic of old traditions.
There are some cracks that cannot be fixed. I realized I was a hole that had always already been there, the dark vault of eternity against which mortal souls light the candle-flame of their existence and shoot across the sky like stars fuelled by prayers—each prayer a reiteration of all their piddling needs, their short-lived longings, their all-consuming hunger for meaning. Xue showed me this. For that, my anger burned against her, and I wanted to strike her dead. I knew it was only a matter of time, but the sooner she was taken, the better. I could not bear another of her shining moments, the chasm between us that widened with every breath she took, every heartbeat she held in her hands so beautiful in its evanescence, like her music.
Then I changed my mind; I didn’t want her to die. I would make her immortal instead—neither dead nor alive, her spirit imprisoned in stone.
But these were just flights of fancy, of course. That I could even wish for anything was a cruel mockery of my impotence. When the darkness took her, she slipped easily into it like a fish, and left me emptier than before.
Because—I know this now—I did love her. I loved everything she embodied. And this hurt, because I, unlike her, couldn’t exist for myself. I was just a reflection. They would make new images of me, the mirror in which humanity shaped itself. They would give me new meanings to serve the greater purpose of their existence.
After she died, they tried to piece me back together. They succeeded to an extent with glue and resin, but the top half of my head had been sliced off, a jagged slash splitting me diagonally between the eyes. I think that fragment of me might have rolled into the bushes somewhere, but search as they might, they could not find it. They left me standing shattered in the same spot, with one eye in the light, and one eye in darkness.
A lizard made a nest in my shadow. Ants marched, carrying fragments of life and death on their backs: a dead grasshopper, a grain of rice, a moth’s wing. I weathered sun, wind and rain, and still I remained.
Every second, for you humans, is marked by the darkness. Every second infinitesimal motes of your skin slough off, some lost forever, some replaced by drier and looser cells until you are suddenly unrecognisable in the mirror. Yet, moment to moment, you cannot feel the passing of time, and the young feel like they will be young forever. How much more so for me? There seemed to be no end to the tedious cycle of seasons, the heat that baked my glazed surface, the sleet that scored my cheek. I could not see myself as gales tore at my veneer and ground my eyes, nose, lips, down to a blurry lump, like something not yet formed. I dissolved into fine particles of sand, some borne off by wind, some by water, some slowly buried beneath layers of earth. I became amorphous, my body spread over vast distances. I received no more prayers, yet I heard them all.
At last, the darkness came for me.
I felt something like a god take a roaring breath and the world blew out like a candle. Then there was cold beyond imagining, a cold that couldn’t be sensed in the body because matter was fading into distant memory. I hurtled past racing stars and wheeling galaxies and comets erupting in blue flame; I glimpsed strange, airy depths, streaks of colour and noise, suggestions of dying worlds and new realms in the making. I became every soul who’d ever prayed, every river and tree and bird, every voice unique yet united as a symphony in which even stones sing, marble and granite and basalt, a synergy sweeping over endless chasms, filling them anew, filling them with hope and possibility and the joy of creation. And I discovered that it was not darkness at all but light, here where there is perpetual music, its refrains always changing, forever renewing itself.
How can I convey this truth to you, truth that must be felt and experienced? All I tell you, and all you can understand, in your twilight world, can only ever be an approximation. But you have nothing to worry about. There is grandeur in the approximating, and you are children of light. One night, the light will come for you.
Celine Low is a writer and dancer, currently nomadic. Her fiction and poetry are either forthcoming or published in Mythaxis, 9Tales from Elsewhere and The Temz Review, among other literary or genre magazines. If you lose her at your house party, you’ll probably find her on your rooftop, dancing with your cat.
1 thought on “The God They Prayed To, by Celine Low”
A wonderful story. Great last line.