The Covenant of the Sharks

This is the story of a man. His name’s Steve.

He hangs out with the sharks. Or at least, he did.

Steve never liked being good too well. He didn’t have an evil nature, exactly. He wanted to do well by his fellow man. He needed goodness to be whole, just like you and me. But he never liked it.

Steve wanted to be a shark.

“So,” Steve says one day, staring up at the Heavens, “here’s a thing between you and me. I’m bound to be good, and if I’m not, that’s a sin. I’ll suffer for it here and I’ll suffer for it there. And I have to ask, what about the sharks? What contract do you have with the sharks and the wasps and the terrors of the deep that lets them hurt others so?”

And there is a thundering in the firmament and a light in the shadow, and he hears this voice: “What business is it of yours, my covenant with the sharks?”

And that is all the answer he gets that day.

Steve’s sitting in the bar. He’s talking to Ben. He’s saying, “It’s cruel, is what it is. They don’t have to be good. They don’t worry if they’re good enough. They just swim, smooth and sleek, and their teeth are like knives.”

Ben rapidly establishes context. “The sharks?”

“Yeah.”

“It’s better to be human,” Ben says. “But it’s not better to worry. That’s where you’re getting mixed up—the two aren’t the same thing. Guilt isn’t goodness.”

“If it’s not the same,” says Steve, “it might as well be.”

And Steve walks down the street, and he can feel the water on his skin, and the cold dark deeps of his eyes. And he works at the bank, and he knows he could steal enough to live well forever. And he passes a girl and he wants her. And he has a little stomachache from eating too much and he knows that all over the world are people who don’t have enough.

And he says, “How do the sharks get away with it?”

The firmament shakes and the girl runs for a building and the cars on the street speed up and one of them grinds its tire on the curb and an old homeless guy on the corner falls down and a businessman’s coffee sloshes right out of his cup as the voice says, to Steve, “What is my covenant with the sharks to you?”

“I want to rip them up,” says Steve, “with my fine sharp teeth.”

And the voice is low, and soft, and this time it is just within Steve’s soul. It says, “You do not.”

So Steve kicks over a trash can, because he can, and then he feels dumb, and he picks up the trash and puts it back in and he goes home and he washes his hands and he goes to bed.

Ben calls him the next day, from the office where they work.

“Hey, Steve,” says Ben. “You didn’t show up today. Are you okay?”

“I wouldn’t be happy as a shark,” Steve says.

He hasn’t shaved. He hasn’t even really gotten out of bed.

“That’s true,” says Ben.

“Why wouldn’t I be happy as a shark?”

“You like the idea of sharks, man. Not the reality. You don’t want to tear people up and look at the blood and the horror of their pain. You want to tear up props that look like people. You don’t want to steal. You want to be a glamorous outlaw. You want the world to give you exactly what you want without any prices, ’cause you know that the price of badness isn’t one you’re willing to pay.”

“It’s not?”

“Look at yourself, Steve,” says Ben, who has a pretty good idea what Steve looks like right now. “You’d be empty and hollow like a rat. You’d be cold and alone and your eyes’d be filled with shock. You’d be broken, man. Hurting people just isn’t as cool in the real world as it is in the cinema of your brain.”

“I could stop caring,” says Steve.

“It’s the covenant of humans and the world,” says Ben. “That it’s better to care. That it’s wholer. That when you love others it can fill you with joy.”

Steve frowns.

“How come you know so much, Ben?”

“You know how sometimes people’ll be walking along thinking about stuff and the firmament shakes and the television goes staticky and a voice answers their thoughts?”

“Well, yah,” says Steve. Everybody knows about that.

“I listen in,” summarizes Ben.

Steve looks appalled. “That’s theological voyeurism, man.”

“I’m addicted to truth. But hey, it pays off, ’cause when you ask me these questions, I can tell you what’s what.”

“But . . .”

Steve flails.

“But,” says Steve, “does that mean that the sharks are hollow and empty and cursed by God?”

The line goes dead. The blender whirls three times. The light flickers and the music of the spheres is for a moment piercing and loud:

“What is it to you, Steven, my covenant with the sharks?”

“You’ve got to be fair, man,” Steven tells the universe. “You’ve given them some kind of preferential deal, haven’t you? You’ve done something . . . they get to be happy monsters.”

The light in the room is blinding and the messenger is there.

“Steven,” says the messenger. His hair is long and silver. His robes are white. His eyes are shadowed. “Steven, the world was born in a state of undifferentiated sin. It is full of error. It is a place of ignorance, fear, and desire. And it is the covenant of the world with humanity that humans may cleanse that sin. That they may be recipients of grace. It is that opportunity given to you, that you may be good. It is priceless because in virtue and in love and in trying to be good you heal the world.”

And Steven thinks about what it’s like to have hard cartilege fins and rough gray skin.

“Please,” Steven says. “Please tell me about the sharks.”

“They are evil,” says the messenger. “They are gatherers of evil. They are a sinkhole for the horror of the world. For if there were not sharks, if there were not wasps, if there were not sociopaths and monsters, then that evil would roam free, in the dust, in the water, in the air, and it could not be healed with ending.”

“Gatherers,” Steven says.

“Sin is a wound,” the messenger says. “The evil are those who take that wound into their souls and let it unweave them until they are hollow worthless men.”

“That’s the one I want,” Steven says. “That’s the covenant I want.”

The messenger bows.

It’s best not to think of it in a human’s terms, because you can’t. If you could understand the covenant of the sharks, you’d be a shark.

Steve walks out of the room. He breathes the air. He looks around. Then he goes, and he begins to kill.

There’s a sinkhole in his heart where you and I’ve got a source. There’s a black depth in his eyes where you and I have light. And he isn’t sad that he kills, and it doesn’t hurt him to hurt, and he doesn’t even have to lie.

It’s not something we could understand. It’s not a human covenant, and it’s not a human thing.

It’s just what he does, so that when he dies, when they fill him full of bullets on an overpass at night, and he falls, and there’s blood in his mouth and his skin’s scraped raw, it’s not a murder that destroys a man but the justice given to a shark.

He laughs as he dies.

He’s not around any more.

Ben asks the world, a while later, “Why was that right? Why was it okay that he did that? What kind of world would turn a good man bad?”

And the firmament shakes, and there are terrible winds, and the sky flickers with light, and the voice says, “It is not an affair for the human kind, my covenant with the sharks.”

See also Shriekback’s “Shark Walk.”

(Holy Saturday) Stories of Deliverance (I/I)

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Daniel works at his desk. He balances accounts. He looks for discrepancies. He reads the records of the dreams of the people of Babylon, and searches them for meaning. It is the hope of his masters that he may discover corruption and incompetence within Babylon’s bureaucracy by correlating the records and the dreams.

He is not surprised when the seraph enters his room.

“I dreamed,” Daniel says, “that the people of Judea fled from a lion, and were met by a bear. The bear was bitten by a serpent, and the bear and the serpent tore one another apart. Then I flew away and was suddenly naked.”

“That is the kind of thing that happens in dreams,” says the seraph.

“The lion was Nabonidus,” says Daniel. “The bear is Belshazzar, who rules in Babylon now that the monster is gone.”

The seraph is a creature of beauty. It is tall. Its skin is strange. Its wings are great and terrible. Its eyes are jeweled.

“I had hoped,” says Daniel, “that he would be a better King. The people of Judea have suffered under the monster for too long; and we are not the only ones.”

“The Lord has not rendered His judgment,” says the seraph.

“Then,” says Daniel, “I ask that the Lord be merciful, and redeem this man. Move his heart, and have him release us from captivity. I have seen into his soul, and there is hope for him.”

“He is no more than any other man,” says the seraph, “and like any other man, he must make his own chances for redemption.”

It is 539 years before the common era.

It is the night before the Feast of Belshazzar.

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha has wandered for six years and several months. He is tired, and he has not found his answer. So he sits beneath a bo tree, and he says,

I will not leave this spot,
Until I find supreme enlightenment—
Until I can make answer
To the suffering of the world.

The wings of Maya beat against him, and she whispers on the wind:

Do you not wish to know your wife again?
To indulge in sensual pleasures with her?
And hold your son, your wonderful son,
And raise him in the duties of the house?

Have you forgotten all the pleasures
That found you in your palaces of gold?

Siddhartha’s smile is clean enough to break her heart.

Should such knick-knacks tempt me? Siddhartha asks.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

Belshazzar slouches on Babylon’s throne.

“It falls to me, now,” he says.

He is dressed in the regalia of a King. He did not know what else to do with it when his father Nabonidus cast it aside.

“I must assume the burden of their dharmas. I must conquer the world. I must break the chains that hold Mylitta’s gods. I must devour everything that is.”

He considers.

“It is fortunate,” he says, “that I am a man who can bear contradictions.”

He snaps his fingers. Mana, an incubus like a giant stick-bug, answers Belshazzar’s call. He is wearing a minister’s robes.

“Release the gods from their bindings,” Belshazzar commands. “And tell them: ‘Go. Make horrid revel, or strike down the armies of Kuras, or help the people of Babylon, or hide under the beds and fear the dawn; do as you like. Serve your nature. Go free.'”

“They will not want to leave you, sire,” oozes the incubus.

“Tell them that their long pain is answered,” says Belshazzar. “Tell them that Nabonidus is gone. That Mylitta is gone. Tell them I have won. Tell them that it is time.”

“And of the people of Babylon?”

“Tell them to make celebration,” Belshazzar says. “Tell them that tomorrow I shall hold a feast, and they shall see the wonders of my kind.”

“They will be afraid,” says the incubus. “There will be fiends that burrow in their skin and move their hands like puppets. There will be angels preaching unimaginable hopes. There will be ghosts of the things they cannot let go of. There will be cruel claws under the bed, and black wings in the sky, and purple light in the depths of the city. If you do not lead them with a strong hand, fear and doubt will break their minds.”

“It is not for me to judge them,” says Belshazzar. “I would go mad. The power I have in Nabonidus’ army—I would go mad! Should I choose whom the gods shall make puppets, and whom they shall exalt? Should I command the hungering beasts, ‘Eat those who stray from the traditional morality, but leave the rest alone?’ When someone sees an eye in the darkness, shall they say, ‘Ah, Belshazzar wishes to know what it is I do?'”

Belshazzar shakes his head.

“I am alone,” he says. “I am an orphan. I am naked in the face of the world. Let them be the same. Let them face the infinity of gods and sort out their own judgments from among them.”

“Such wisdom,” says the incubus. “Truly, you shall be the King of all the world.”

Belshazzar smiles thinly.

“You too are free,” he says. “I need no praising god.”

The Bo Tree

India

As the feast of Belshazzar approaches, Siddhartha sits beneath the bo tree and thinks on life. Maya’s wings are beating, and she says to him:

Surely, Siddhartha,
If you continue this meditation
It will bring you your death.

Over the horizon, he can see them come. They are swift. They are terrible. They are an army of horror, summoned from the world to answer Maya’s need. And Maya names them as they come:

Look, this is Sakkaya-ditthi,
Raksha and enemy of the gods, but still she comes,
Twisting wind, white light in a hurricane,
Mumbling the truths of power.

Look, this is Vicikiccha,
A world-breaking fiend, like a panther, like a snake,
Crawling on two legs towards you
Dragging his tail behind him
Burning you with his eyes.

Look, this is Silabbataparamasa,
Dark sorceress clad in writhing rituals,
Hidden in a cloak of night,
Practicing the magic of your end.

Look, here are my daughters, child:
Tanha, whom you must love;
Arati, whom you must hate,
Raga, whom you must lust for.

Here is Arupa-raga, a distancing god,
Here is Mana, raksha, clad in robes
Here is Uddhacca, born of the monster’s need
Here is Avijja, demon, your undoing.

Look, Siddhartha, as they come,
Boiling over the horizon.
They shall be your death.

And Siddhartha looks at them, and he sees the laws of their natures, and he says, I shall die, mother, but not in such a fashion as this.

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

The celebration rages through Babylon. It is punctuated by screams and cries of ecstasy. And Daniel stands before Belshazzar, and says, “My people cannot be here, Belshazzar. Living under your rule will destroy us. It is time to let Judea go.”

Belshazzar rises from his throne. He is drunk. His eyes are cold.

“Where was your God when I needed him?”

Daniel shakes his head. “That isn’t relevant.”

Belshazzar’s nostrils flare. He is not a bad man in all ways, but he is not a very good drunk.

“I find your people wanting,” he says. “I will devour you. I will break your faith and prove your Lord is meaningless and in so doing I shall unmake everything your people are.”

Daniel lowers his head. He walks away.

Belshazzar turns to a servant.

“Fetch forth the ceremonial vessels taken from the temple at Jerusalem,” Belshazzar commands. “I shall defile them here, at the feast of Belshazzar, and then there shall be no people of Judea, no tribe of Abraham, no servants of Daniel’s almighty God, but henceforth only emptiness.”

And so he drinks, but as he drinks, the seraph enters the room; and there is no one whose eyes follow the seraph but Belshazzar himself.

The seraph’s hand is red.

“Mene,” writes the seraph on the wall, in letters of crimson and black. “Mene. Tekel. Peres.”

The Bo Tree

India

Siddhartha is unmoved.

The army of Maya has cast itself against him, and it has broken. Stone, and ice, and knives have rained from the heavens upon him, and even the devas opened their umbrellas to shield them from so terrible a rain—but Siddhartha is unmoved.

Flaming rocks fall upon him, and in Maya’s eyes Siddhartha sees the bite of an unmeasurable pain, and he bows his head, but he does not leave, and he does not die, and he does not break.

Finally, Maya is exhausted, finally there is nothing left in her, finally she is curled upon the ground and saying:

Why have you left me alive, my son,
To know my helplessness?

Belshazzar’s Feast

Babylon

It is later that night, and Belshazzar has devoured the alcohol from his blood and now there is only a headache.

“Daniel,” he says, “what does it mean, this writing on the wall?”

“‘You have been measured and found wanting.‘”

Belshazzar laughs. He cannot stop laughing. He shouts, into the air of Babylon, “It’s so! It’s so! I will judge myself so!”

The Bo Tree

Dualistic Existence

Siddhartha holds out his hand to the treasure wheel, and says,

You weep, mother, because I will be a Buddha.
Yet only the Buddha can end your tears.

Listen. This is enlightenment:
Suffering is unnecessary.

To make it unnecessary—
That is the nature of the Buddha.
That is my dharma.

There is no room in all the natures of the world for the truth he has just named; and in that moment, the purpose of the world is emptiness, and the treasure wheel is hollow. And in Babylon, Belshazzar’s teeth cut and tear at his own flesh, and the devouring god devours himself, and into him like a rushing river pour all the natures of the world.

539 years before the common era, the world is delivered from sorrow.

The Messenger

The messenger came from very far away.

He rode through the void bearing our pardon. He passed waterfalls of fire, and snakes greater than rivers, and jungles of green so pure that Rainbow Brite would know envy. And still he rode.

He came in time to the walk, to the march, to the progression of the shadows. They walk through the endless night down to the deepest sea.

They are blind.

They are deaf.

They cannot feel one another. For they are all shadows, and shadows feel as shadows alike.

Each of them says, as he or she walks, “I am lonely. I am empty. I am tired.”

And so they wend their way down to the deepest sea.

It is here that the messenger failed. It is here that the messenger betrayed us, and we may say it is wrong without compunction, for it was wrong even by the messengers’ own code.

He stopped.

He reined in his horse, and he came down.

And he walked among them, each to each, and touched them, and gave them an answer to their loneliness.

And through the long night the shadows wept, and there was something pure and uncompromisingly beautiful in their tears.

But he has not come.

The messenger has not come, and this was wrong, and he knows it is wrong. And that is why the world is not right.

That is why the world can never be right.

That is why the world is not right today.

Remnants (III/IV)

It is 702 years before the common era.

Micaiah, called Micah, is a prophet in the land of Judah. He has a desert complexion. His hair is brown but turning to gray. He is sitting, stirring the ashes of his fire, when there’s a knock at the door. A hint of a fetid stench wafts in.

“Come in,” he calls, and the door opens. There’s a woman outside, gaunt and tired. Behind her, he sees the bulk of a great white shape. Its paws are larger than most cats. Its mouth could swallow him whole. The woman enters. White Lion stays outside.

“My name is Micah,” he says. “And I have water, to wash your feet.”

“Ella,” she says. “I need to sit.”

So he gestures towards his bed, and she sits down.

He studies her for a while. “They say that some of the Nephilim survived. But they are described as Anakites. Taller than a man. You are shorter than a sunflower.”

“Is it that obvious?” she says.

“You fit through my door. It’s not a very tall door.”

She flushes. “Not my height. My race.”

He nods. “I have seen the messengers of the Lord,” he says. He goes to the fireplace, fills it with logs, and starts a fire to make the house warm. “You have something of their semblance, but not enough to be one of them; and I am not such a fool as to discard one truth or another.”

“It is hard for me,” she says, “to come here, and beg of the God of Abraham.”

“Yes.”

“But a thousand years ago, in Sodom, he smote my people. He killed them, all but two. And he should not have stopped.”

Micah smiles. “I have wine,” he says. “Would you like some?”

“Please.”

So he fetches a skin, and tosses it to her, and then he sits down near the fire and lets the tension drain from him and into the earth below.

“Tell me about it,” he says.

“In Assyria,” she says, “there is a monster named Sennacherib. He is making a terrible host to trample Judah, Samaria, and eventually all others. I have sworn to kill him, but . . .”

She turns her hands upright, then down again. “I am not sufficient to the task. Not alone. Not with Tanit. Not with White Lion. So I come here, to you. To your God. To ask him to finish the job.”

“I’m sorry.”

She looks up at him, startled.

“Listen,” he says. “My people . . . we make gods too.”

Micah gestures out at Judah.

“We do not carve them out of souls. We carve them from wood and stone and meaningless prayers. We have lost our devotion to the Lord, so our devotions to Him are empty. We have lapsed idle in our dedication to virtue, so even the virtuous lapse to dedicating idols. We are a people fallen, like shorn wheat, and the Lord shall reap us.”

He sighs.

“The Lord has readied Sennacherib like His scythe.”

“That?” she says. The color drains from her face.

“What?”

“That is why we survived?” It is instant; her calm reserve is shattered, and hot tears fall down her face. “He left Lia and Amiel alive to be his weapon?

“Ah.”

Micah sighs, then smiles at her. “No,” he says.

“No?”

“Listen,” he says. “Do you have a god?”

She hesitates. “I have White Lion,” she says. “And a fairy. And myself.”

“See, I know how the Lord’s like you, and I know how He’s different from you, but I don’t know . . .”

Micah waves his hands through the air.

“I don’t know why He’s one way and you’re another.”

“Oh.”

“But I can say why He left you alive.”

She looks at him.

“It is always the Lord’s wish that hearts will turn towards Him,” Micah says. “He asks of us that we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with Him. And to let us do so . . . it is His will that always a remnant shall survive. No matter how He culls or cuts us, He shall leave some of us . . . the meek, the most virtuous, the most loyal . . . that He can gather them again in time, and make of that remnant of His people a great nation once again.”

“But we are not of your people,” Ella says. Then she grins, despite herself. “I would not care to try circumcising White Lion.”

“No,” Micah agrees. “You have no covenant with Him, and you are not of His people. Yet . . . His way is His way. He did not empty Egypt of its people, but took their firstborn; He did not empty the world in flood; He did not smite all Sodom and Gomorrah and leave none alive. He is a culling God, a pruning God, a God of vineyards and olive trees; and when a man shakes an olive tree, he leaves some behind.”

“It were better,” she says, “that He had not.”

“As you say,” Micah says. He looks out at Judah. “Yet for all their wickedness, I love my people. I want them to return. I want to imagine a day when they pass beyond the punishment of the Lord and learn His mercy.” He smiles at her. “Surely you are the same?”

Ella looks down.

“Surely?”

“Yes,” she says, quietly. “I want Aishah to be free. And Zenobia. And all my line. And those born from it.”

Ella holds up her hand, and cinders from the fire whirl together, and the fairy Tanit stands within.

“There are wonders,” Ella says. “Strange and beautiful wonders. And I do not want them to end. But Sennacherib has violated us and turned it to dust and I cannot see how there is anything that can survive.”

Tanit hops down onto the bed, curls up, and sleeps.

“It is a harder task,” Micah says, “to be the remnant than the culled.”

“Yes.”

Micah sighs. “Listen,” he says. “The King of Judah . . . his ears are not stone. In the reign of Ahaz, there was no hope for this people. But Hezekiah . . . I think that he may listen. He may set aside his statesmanship, and lead our people to righteousness, and turn against the Assyrian. Then the Lord would check His scythe, and open a great wound in the army of Sennacharib, and . . . perhaps allow you your victory.”

“And if not?”

“Then the monster shall grow more powerful,” Micah says. “And in Babylon he will make his home. And the world will writhe in agony under the gods of Babylon, and my people and yours will be carried there in chains. Then a hero of your line will come and stand against him, and strive to break the bond of Lia and Amiel. And in that battle shall come an end to the time of gods and monsters, and the Lord shall gather the assembled nations of the world like sheaves to the threshing floor, and they shall be driven with lust to ravish the remnant of Israel, and in their hunger they will not see what lies ahead. For the Lord shall shod us in hooves of bronze and horns of iron, and we shall break the assembled nations to pieces, and devote the wealth earned through their greed to our worship of the Lord.”

“And . . .”

Micah shrugs. “I do not know,” he says, “what becomes of your people then. I am a prophet of Judah.”

She looks down.

“Try to survive,” he says. “Your heart’s a good one. There’s not enough of that in the world.”

“I’ll try.”

He smiles.

“You were right,” she adds, after a moment. “It’s harder to be the remnant than the culled.”

Then she picks up Tanit, and holds her close, and walks to the door, and climbs atop the great white beast. And King Hezekiah turns his people’s mind to the Lord, and a wound opens in the host of Sennacherib, and a great lion ravages amidst its ranks; but Sennacherib does not die that day, and Micah does not see Ella again.

The Flower (I/IV)

It is 1715 years before the common era.

Near the city of Sodom lives a man named Lot, and he takes many guests within his house. Yet when he serves them meals, and offers them salt, his wife says, “None yet, my husband. There is none.”

Zachariah, a guest, asks her, “What, none?”

And Lot smiles.

“It is a thing my wife says,” Lot explains.

“Why so?”

Zachariah is looking at the shelf on the wall. It has salt on it. The jar is labelled. But Lot only shrugs.

“When we argued with Abraham,” he says, “and then came to this place, she shed no tears. And when the men forced themselves on her, she did not cry. And when our daughters were born, there were no tears; nor when the first of them was slain. So I asked her, ‘Flower of my heart, are you so stingy with your salt?’

“‘This is not pain,’ she said. ‘This is life.’

“‘And what is pain?’ I asked.

“‘Something that our guests will bring.’ And since that time, when I bring in a guest, and ask her for seasoning . . .”

Lot shrugs expressively.

“I do not see why I should be deprived on account of your wife’s strangeness,” Zachariah complained.

“It is a meal,” Lot says. “And I have learned to favor meals that do not so much depend upon the salt.”

So Zachariah eats.

“Can you show me the children?” Zachariah says, after a while.

“I am scarcely a man of Sodom,” Lot demurs.

Zachariah gives him a keen regard. “You would not be here if you had no sympathy for them, nor they for you.”

Lot glances at his wife. She shrugs expressively and scrubs out a pot.

“Come with me,” he says.

He takes Zachariah out into the city, and down its hidden ways, and to the nursery, and there they look in on them. The building is crowded with beds, clothing, pots, and children. The children are between six and thirteen years of age, and the undertone of their skin is gray. Some are playing; others, resting. There’s an undertone of malaise.

“They do not seem like much,” Zachariah admits.

“Ah.”

“It’s just . . . I’d expected more.”

Lot looks up. “Amiel,” he says. “Lia.”

He speaks to two girls sitting side by side on a rough cot and playing some game involving the postures of their hands. They turn, and look towards the entrance. Their eyes are like a shock to Zachariah, and he stumbles back.

“Lot,” says Amiel. Her voice is chimes and wind, a thing of unnatural beauty. It is not suited to her throat, and as she speaks, Zachariah can see the pain that word causes her. He thinks, though he cannot know, that it must rub the inside of her throat raw. Lia places her hand protectively over Amiel’s.

“This is Zachariah,” Lot says. “He’s visiting. He wanted to know about you.”

“I—” Amiel gets out the first part of that word, and nothing more, before Lia’s hand is clamped over her mouth. Lia shakes her head, firmly, and then looks towards Zachariah.

“We are gods,” Lia says. “They call us Nephilim and say that we are the children of angels. But they do not know us. We are gods.”

“I had heard,” Zachariah says, “that some survived the flood. But . . . there are dozens of you.”

“Hundreds,” Lia says. Her voice is matter-of-fact. “This is not our only house.” She looks at him. “Shall I tell you your future?”

Zachariah shakes his head.

“Thank you,” Lot says. Lia nods, and Amiel too. So Lot leads Zachariah back to his home.

Zachariah sits a while in thought.

“When they are of age,” he says, “this city shall be invincible.”

“An empire,” Lot agrees. His wife turns and gives him a harsh look; but he only shrugs and smiles at her.

“And those of us allied to it, . . .” Zachariah adds.

“Why do you think I have shown it to you? . . . I am drawn here,” Lot says. “To these people. To the children. They are a wonder of our time. I cannot betray them. Yet when they sweep out in conquest of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, the Jebusites; when Jordan falls, and Egypt, and even Babylonia; then the tribe of Abraham will not be spared. That is why I bring my people here, to meet the people of Sodom, and sometimes show them these wonders. We must be here, standing behind the scythe, lest our people die like wheat.”

“Where did they come from?”

“It is the Lord’s way,” Lot says, “when he destroys, to leave a remnant.”

His wife snorts. Lot ignores her.

“It is Sodom’s way to breed with such remnants, by force if such it requires, and create the god-children you have seen.”

Zachariah turns his gaze to Lot’s wife, who flushes and turns her head aside.

“My flower bears only mortal children,” Lot says, quietly. “They leave her be.”

It is the night. The fires are low. Zachariah wakes and goes outside. He finds Lot’s wife seated against the wall. He takes a seat beside her.

“It is a night of ill omen,” she says. “You had best be on your way.”

“Pardon,” he says. “But I do not know your name.”

She sighs.

“Well,” he says. “I do not.”

“He calls me his flower,” she says. “Isn’t that enough?”

“No.”

She flushes again. There’s a pause.

“My name is Maya,” she says. “I am the desert, and the desert wind, and the sky, and the sea, and life, and death, and the beating of your heart. I am the perfume of a spring morning. I am the abattoir stench. I am everything in this world.”

“You have fallen low.”

“No,” she says. “I have not.”

She holds out her hands, palm down. “I have known hardship and loss,” she says, “since I came to Jordan, but it is not pain. I am Maya. Even the brutal ways of these men are not pain to me. They are simply life.” She turns her hands upright, and moves them together to cup the air. “And in exchange for this suffering, I may have Lot; and I can tend the children; and these things make me glad.”

Zachariah waits.

“He is a good man,” she says, defensively. “He is not schooled in goodness, he has no great philosophy of virtue, but he is good at heart.”

“You could have palaces in the sky,” Zachariah says, “attended by thousands of men or maidens, and sup on the best of all the world.”

“I have done so,” Maya says, “and will do again; but that is not pleasure. That is simply life.”

“I would lay with you,” Zachariah says.

She sighs. She rises. “You’ll come to a bad end if you do.”

He hesitates.

“Leave,” she says. “You have the chance. This is a favor. Do you understand? It’s not that I’ll stop you. It’s just . . . you’re Lot’s guest. He wants you safe. If you do this, you’ll die horribly, and not at my hand.”

Zachariah looks disturbed, and then he nods. “Thank you,” he says. He leaves, hurriedly; and dawn comes, and turns to evening, and the creatures of beauty, that some name seraphim, come down the road.

Lot is sitting outside his house, outside the city walls, when they approach. He rises to his feet.

“My lords,” he says. “Please turn aside to your servant’s house. You can wash your feet and spend the night and then go on your way early in the morning.”

They regard him with a cold and casual regard.

“We will spend the night in the square,” one answers. Lot shivers, hearing the creature’s voice.

“Please,” he says. “They will do you harm.”

There is an indefinable hesitation, and a sense of pressure in the air. Lot’s ears hurt, deep inside. Then the feeling fades.

“Very well,” they say, and enter Lot’s house. Maya gives them a sardonic look.

“More guests?” she says.

“My flower,” he protests.

She looks them up and down. “Leave,” she says flatly. There’s a pause. Then her eyes shadow. “Please.”

The men turn and look at Lot, who smiles jovially. “Ignore her,” he says. “She is ill-mannered; but you are my guests.”

Maya scowls and goes to the cookpots. She feeds them a meal, and does not stint the salt.

“Tell me,” she says. “Is there any way that this city will be spared?”

One of the creatures smiles at her. “If there are fifty,” he says, “fifty virtuous men, why, then, Sodom shall live.”

Lot looks uncomfortable. “How do you mean?” he asks.

“Or forty-five,” the other creature points out.

“Yes. If there are forty-five virtuous men. Why, even forty should do.”

“You mock me,” hisses Maya. “You know there are but three.”

Stung, the creature looks down.

“We had hoped,” he says. “We had hoped there would be ten.”

Lot has gone very quiet; but Maya laughs, and her voice is bitter.

“They are all beautiful,” she says. “The children. And the men! Their ambition is ambrosia. And the women, who keep their men and raise their own cubs in the shadow of such gods: they are heroes too. Oh, this place is a jewel, thou seraphim. But virtue is a measure ill-suited to it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Spare them,” she says. Her voice is flat.

“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is too great,” one seraph says. “If what we see is as we have been told, this place must end.”

Then the walls began to shake from the pounding of fists, and a voice rose up from outside: “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.”

“If you ignore the first impression,” Maya says, thinly, “they do have redeeming qualities.”

“Bring them out!” cries the voice.

“Can they get children on us?” the seraph asks, in a voice of faint distraction.

“I do not know,” Maya says.

“Bring them out!”

Lot goes outside and shuts the door behind him. “No,” he says. “I pray you. Do not do this thing.”

“It is our way.”

Lot tilts his head to one side. “I have two daughters,” he says. “They have never known a man. Take them, in my guests’ stead.”

Inside, Maya winces. A seraph catches her gaze, and says, “They will be safe.”

“It’s embarrassing,” she says. “I love him for his good intentions, but I’ve met spiders with a better moral compass.”

“You could drive them away,” the seraph suggests.

“It’s not my nature.”

Outside, the leader of Sodom’s men shakes his head. “We seek power, Lot; and so, I think, do you. We won’t be bribed with mortal sex.”

“Then,” says the seraph, inside, “it falls to me.”

The seraph spreads his wings, and his jewel-like eyes blink once, and a great light shines forth within Lot’s house, and from every window and under the door. It blinds the men of Sodom, and they stagger about. Lot, with the quiet step of a child who has erred, walks back inside.

“There is judgment,” the seraph says. “This city shall die. Gather those that are yours. Take them from this city. In the morning, Sodom and Gomorrah shall be dust and ash.”

“The children,” Lot says.

The seraph snorts. Then after a moment, he sighs, and shakes his head.

“There are no innocents,” he says, “in Sodom.”

Maya breaks for the door.

“Maya!” Lot says. But he cannot stop her. She flees into the night. And through the night he went to those he had brought there, and told them to leave, but they did not. And in the morning, the seraphim put their hands on his, and on his daughters’, and take him from the town.

In the shelter of the children, the air is very still.

“What will happen?” asks Lia.

“Brimstone and fire will rain out of Heaven,” Maya answers.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” Maya says. “Flaming rocks are traditional.”

“Will we die?”

“Yes,” Maya says. The stillness deepens.

“Don’t die,” Amiel says. The voice is clear and beautiful. The flesh inside her throat tears and bleeds. Lia glares at her, then hugs her tightly.

“Please,” Amiel adds.

“I won’t,” Maya says.

Then the fire comes. Maya rises over the city like a veil, her skin shining with the night and the stars, but Maya is illusion, not substance, and the fires come down through her and render all Sodom ruin. She watches as the towers fall. She watches as the nursery crumbles, and the children die, and the men of the city, and the women, and the rats that scurried near the walls. And in the end, only two remain, battered and red, but breathing; and she manifests again at their side.

“Lia,” she says. “Amiel.”

“It is the way of the Lord to leave a remnant,” Lia says. Her voice makes Maya catch her breath. There is nothing of the divine in it, only emptiness, and her godhood has burned away in the crucible of Sodom.

“. . . so cruel,” Maya says.

Lia turns Amiel over, and listens to her heart. “It’s all right,” she says. “Amiel is still herself.” She looks at Maya. “I suppose,” she says, “that my better part was deemed unworthy.”

“It’s not a judgment,” Maya says.

“It’s not?”

“It was deemed better,” Maya says, “that all these die; and you be scoured; and Amiel burned. But that doesn’t make it a punishment. There’s never correlation between one’s suffering and one’s guilt.”

She takes their hands, and leads them away, and at some distance, she looks back.

“You’re crying,” Amiel says, and then begins to choke.

“Help her,” Maya says. And Lia does.

Maya’s tears do not stop, and the salt flows from her like a tide.