God in a Basement Flat
For Brian W. Aldiss.
I was sitting in my pagoda, committing hara-kiri, when the Celestial Horn began to sound. I had just finished a last cup of green tea. The single note, almost below the range of hearing, gradually expanded until it became unbearable. The Horn itself, black crystal studded with tiny stars, shuddered and threatened to topple off its pedestal. I opened my mouth and tried to mimic the ineffable purity of the effusion. Ears and spartan room filled with agonising sweetness. I raised the teapot to my lips and returned the beverage to its source.
I replaced the sword in its scabbard, uncrossed my legs and stood up. I was being summoned. God himself wanted to see me; there was no time to lose. I stuffed a cushion into the end of the Horn, crossed the room and slid open the silk screen doors. My bicycle was waiting for me outside. I mounted it and wobbled down the wooden causeway that linked pagoda to terra firma. The fumes of the marsh rolled forwards, forcing me to press a scented handkerchief to my nose.
My destination was the coast. At the end of the causeway, I joined the road that would take me there, past chalets, bowling greens, salted pavilions, lighthouses, to the Hotel Descartes. God had deserted his sumptuous palace for the benefits of sea air. As I changed into top gear and accelerated, chasing satori, I caught the disturbing scents of the first rotting funfair: donkeys and doughnuts, hotdogs and seaweed. I consoled myself with a hasty haiku:
Goldfish choke in bags
Punch is drunk with Judy’s whine
Fun is never fair.
A sudden crash behind me made me risk looking over my shoulder. My cushion was soaring high above the marsh; a gaping hole showed in the roof of my pagoda. God was growing impatient. I sighed and increased my pace, ringing my bell at the nesting flamingoes. As I neared the pale sea, discarded chip wrappers and toffee apples bounced across my path like tumbleweed. Grains of sand coated my cheeks. Calliope music, awash with spiralling arpeggios and jolly funeral chords, pursued remnants of musichall songs over the barren landscape.
I reached the Hotel Descartes within the hour. The receptionist, a haggard old crone, led me up two flights of stairs to God’s room. He was the only resident in the entire building. Other guests had long since been relocated to nursing homes. I was astonished by the squalor of the Hotel: the peeling paintwork, the chipped varnish on the rickety wooden bannisters, the worn carpets. The receptionist wheezed as she rapped on the door of number 49. An ominous voice cried, “Enter,” and I turned the handle and stepped through into darkness.
The blinds were drawn, the lamps extinguished. Such measures are necessary. No human, however pure, can behold the face of God without going insane. I groped my way around the room, stumbling into furniture, knocking over ornaments. Now the Creator’s voice was muffled rather than portentous. As an extra precaution, he had locked himself into the en-suite bathroom. I was grateful.
“Listen Yukio,” he said, “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. Frankly, I’m worried. Heaven isn’t the place it used to be. Paradise is starting to resemble Bognor Regis. There are too many old people getting in. They’re cluttering up the place with their walking frames and bingo halls. We are being taken over.”
I was duly humble. Even though I could see nothing, I kept my eyes on the floor. I remarked that I had been aware of the problem for some time. It was due to a rising life expectancy. Dying young had gone out of fashion. God was nostalgic. “Exactly. In olden days, Heaven was a lovely place. Hardly anyone over the age of twenty. Fine boys and girls with soft limbs and olive tanned flesh, cavorting in the perfumed gardens. Something has got to be done.”
“You want me to go to Earth?” I was excited by the idea. I relished the chance to see my planet again. “You want me to solve the problem for you?” Already schemes were moving in formal patterns across the glassy stage of my mind: a psychodramatic kabuki, obdurate figures. Yet I am not as blindly loyal as I once was. I asked: “An intellectual challenge alone or will I receive something in return?”
“You are perceptive, Yukio. I like that.” There was a long pause. I began to grow afraid. I heard the toilet flush. Eventually, God resumed his speech. “If you achieve what I ask, I will permit you to commit a successful hara-kiri. A favour for a favour. But you are not the first I have commissioned for this task. I trust you will not follow the example of your predecessors. They have already been punished. Hot viruses and global warming were great disappointments.”
“Perhaps the old techniques are no longer viable,” I mused. “Plague and flood are out of date. We require something relevant to the modern age.” I waited for God’s answer. It did not come. “Worry not. I exist to serve.” There was still no reply. I assumed the interview was at an end. I descended the stairs to the lobby. The receptionist clucked her tongue as I departed. I left her with an atheistic insight:
No more cogito
Cartesian wells run dry
My doubts are a drought.
Before returning to my pagoda, I wheeled my bicycle to the frosty beach and attempted to kill myself on the sand. The blade slid in deep, but no blood leaked. I sighed. Broken deckchairs glided in the breeze, lodging together in pairs and resembling sinking trading vessels. The junks of faith. One day I shall read my own intestines and also learn, in their loops, the limits of hope and charity.
I discussed my mission with Meredith Monk, my neighbour. Once a famous composer, she had sought to pursue her calling beyond the Pearly Gates. She was disappointed. Electricity is unknown above a certain latitude of divinity. There was no power for her synthesisers. She refused to seek solace in despair. Mechanical contraptions of harps and horns, stolen from unwary angels, suited her purpose. The larger models are amusing and pertinent. One day, you will know.
She lives on the other side of my marsh. This is a prime site; a relatively healthy stretch of fenland, troubled by less mosquitoes (I sleep naked to divert the insects away from her) and facing a static setting sun. She always praises my novels, though I no longer dabble with prose. My features, she claims, are not those of a fanatic. To counter this insult, not because she expects it, but because an actor needs practice, I strut with unsheathed blade, crack each blasphemous twilight with banzai salutes.
“There is an answer to your dilemma,” she said, adjusting position on her wicker chair and toying with her wine glass. In deference to her considerable wisdom, I had forsaken mat and bowl. I drank Chianti as did she; I dangled my legs. When we stood together, shoulder to shoulder, I appeared clumsy, fierce but impotent.
Meredith is an exception to everything. With women I normally deem it impolite to conduct literal conversation. I prefer to approach topics crab-like, carapace concealing pink flavour. As she refilled my glass, I should have swirled the vintage and remarked that my ancestors had ended our isolation for the sake of such flavours.
Instead I urged: “Tell me!” She laughed at this, an extraordinary sound. Her voice is a koto strung with lutist’s hair. It tears at my heart, massages my spleen. (Not that the latter has been returned. I must wait. In few areas can Heaven be termed efficient. It is a stale bureaucracy with the trimmings).
She teased: “This is the eve of an adventure.” I caught her meaning at once. Her ideas are like her music; they do not flow in a line, but pulse like frogs in a puddle. On an impulse, I reached out to touch her brow; my uncut nails snagged a ringlet.
She howled. The way of the haiku, the Kado, is in my very essence. In lieu of an apology, I muttered:
A chord of her hair
By my clumsy fingers played
Sounds a single note.
Against the sunset, antithesis of all my ideals, flamingoes veered silent and indistinct, like splinters of the sinking star. Why had God erected such a ludicrous vista? Because the sunset is a symbol of the artist? But nobody wanted the thing: I can only live in the light of the sunrise. I suspect a mordant joke. Can a frozen sun really be said to be setting rather than rising? I refuse to concede the point. They are not the same. Close your eyes and use your nose.
Meredith huddled in her shawl. A cool wind rose from the shallows; reeds tottered. Chimes hanging from the porch offered five notes of a coherent melody. She crooned to herself, stealing the music and adding words. I was reminded of a fairytale, the way her syllables soothed. I shrugged. “Then I must go to Eden…”
Not a notion to relish. Once the most sublime garden in the Cosmos, Eden had fallen into neglect. Picnickers are mostly responsible for the litter that has accumulated over millennia. But I personally blame D.H. Lawrence. He was a poor choice of gardener. The work is beyond him; he grumbles into his beard as he hoes and rakes. It was a long journey, a bumpy ride. Honour for Genji, my bicycle. The chance to burst a tyre in the divine service comes to few velocipedes.
Meredith indicated her desire to retire indoors. Her house is pure ranch, complete with wooden veranda and paraffin lamps. But it rests on stilts above the waters. We stood, once more shoulder to shoulder, and I saw in her form a silky strength pulped from the flesh of a myriad young boys. As I waited for her to make the first move, she asked: “If Heaven is overcrowded, why do we meet so few people?”
“We are privileged guests,” I told her, “living in one of the last wilderness areas. We must be appreciative.”
In truth, her tone depressed me. My mission seemed little more than a token gesture. Shortly after I died and climbed the cumulus ladder, my knowledge of cosmology underwent a radical shift. I discovered there was not a single Earth but a multitude of them, each one slightly different, arranged in neat parallel dimensions for the apparent purpose of playing out the total sum of all possibilities.
Now I was going back to my own, to close the border, but there were innumerable others, on rival Earths. Shutting off the exit from just one would barely scar the surface of the problem.
Meredith was blaspheming. “Why does he live in a hotel? You don’t really believe that sea air nonsense?”
I suggested he craved simplicity. This did not satisfy her; she had studied too much in the hermetic tradition of philosophy. Though God was omnipotent, he could not do everything. For example, he could not impede his own progress or attenuate his own power. Such actions are born of impotency. God’s doings sprang from strength, never from weakness. She learnt this from Anselm, the very lips. “It looks bad,” she explained. “A deity in bed and breakfast accommodation!”
These ontological twists bruised my skull more than shochu (sake is a fairly weak drink) and I shook them free. I told her I had chosen to serve God whatever the metaphysical basis of his decisions. Even if he was turning senile, I would continue to obey. A mad Creator is no less useful to me than a sane one. Defeat can be noble as victory. I believe this still, I am merely more cautious.
For a minute, we mocked the sunset. Meredith, who sometimes thinks in quotes to please me, said: “All the world’s a stage, and here is the safety curtain.” The sky was a wall of flaming cloud. The truth of the marsh, cancerous with small islands, was anonymity. Wavelets lapped like prams. A beacon on the far shore winked its attentions. Flattered and offended by the familiarity, she pursed lips. She turned toward me and my smirking bicycle. Mechanisms are her suitors, gear ratios court her favours, seeking to impress and penetrate.
As I watched the beacon, the absurd thought branded itself into my consciousness. There was no lighthouse on that stretch of marsh. It was my pagoda, burning in fits and starts. Someone was detonating barrels of gunpowder in the vicinity! Tempered by centuries of damp, the pagoda was resisting to the very end. I stood and stumbled on the rim of the porch, nearly falling into the marsh. I cannot slit veins here, but I can silt them up. Would this suffice as a substitute demise?
“Arsonists?” Meredith was incredulous.
Tying my headband to Genji’s handlebars, I took leave of my friend with a slight bow. I skirted the ordure, oily as sweat, sword bouncing in basket. When I reached my home, there was nothing left but the glazed roof, floating on the marsh like a monstrous lotus. The wood and paper fluttered as ash, greasing the waters further. On the causeway, shards of my Celestial Horn formed a sparkling message: JUST A REMINDER, SIGNED GOD. I noticed two shadows in a punt, poling their way back to smugness: the Archangel Gabriel and a lackey. They wiped soot from their haloes. God’s dirty work leaves indelible stains.
The following week, on borrowed wings, I soared through Earth’s upper atmosphere, high over Asia. I alighted in the city of my childhood, the focus of my maturity. I had decided to combine business with pleasure. I wanted to remember the good times, the unheeded shouts, the feel of the edge in my abdomen, as startling as a girl’s tongue. Nostalgia. My head jumped from my shoulders on the third attempt.
Tokyo had certainly changed since my day. I was born into the old city, unwilling beneficiary of Kanto earthquake and American fire. In the wake of these ravages, flimsy wooden structures had sprouted; these were gradually replaced by low rise concrete blocks. An ugly town for much of my life, it has to be admitted. But now wealth had encouraged the erection of glass and steel edifices. In the districts of Harajuku and Roppongi, people moved with less grace and more confidence. Wallets distorted pockets, credit cards were fumbled.
I spent a good two hours wandering around, seeking familiar haunts. I kept generally to the rooftops. At last, in Ichigaya, I chanced upon the site of my original death. The compounds of the Ground Self-Defence Force had been demolished. So I returned to the Ginza district, the hub, and stalked the edges of the moats ringing the Imperial Palace Grounds. Mandarin ducks and joggers flashed their plumage.
I sensed I was not alone here. Dark forms could be felt vibrating seductively on the other side of the metropolis. Probably agents of the Other, sowing the beansprouts of discontent. It was best not to concern myself with them. I had seen enough evil: the hammer and sickle painted on walls of student common-rooms, the withering of my culture. I awaited nightfall and made my way directly to a discreet hoteru, a love hotel, in the Gotanda section. Here my target, Dr Miyoshi, head of an eponymous corporation, lay snuggled with a hired hostess.
Filtering through the air-conditioning, I reassembled myself and dipped into the folds of my robe. Miyoshi was snoring loudly; the girl in the hollow of his armpit was quiet. Informants for God had already reported this weekly ritual to the Hotel Descartes on the Fax Vobiscum. God likes to keep a careful eye on his promising subjects. I had acted on the news with typical panache. I glanced around and winced at the décor. The room was furnished in standard hoteru style, with a mirrored ceiling, gaudy satins and other decadent luxuries.
From my robe I produced a purple ovoid. I had obtained it after a great deal of haggling with D.H. Lawrence. Despite the papers I carried, permitting me the use of any facility in Eden to aid my mission, he had remained truculent. Finally, after I agreed to read his complete works, he allowed me to pluck a single fruit. The tree I approached has always been the most jealously guarded, though it is not the most famous. There are no serpent-kissed apples in its branches; only Knowledge comes that way. The Tree of Eternal Life drops plums.
This was the contour of my plan. I squeezed the fruit between the compressed lips of the hostess, breaking the skin on her teeth. As she awoke, the sweet juice trickled into her throat. Her eyes widened; with a flick of my sword I clove her heart. Her breastbone sagged; the blade came out with a sound like that of a hinge.
Before she could bleed away this absurdity, I was gone. I left in the conventional manner. Departing an hoteru unobserved is simplicity itself. Customers and staff are supposed never to see each other. The bill is paid to a hand protruding from a curtain. As I strolled past, I cleared my throat and lisped: “Goshukuhaku.” I am no humorist, but this is a very ironic joke. Take my word for it.
Outside, in the cool night, I attached my wings and lifted into the skyglow. Aside from a touch of clear air turbulence, my return journey was uneventful. I was eager to confide in my neighbour, to seek a quiet place to reap my reward. I found Meredith, as always, on the porch of her stilted ranch. She was experimenting with an embossed gong, as big as a shield, to which she had fixed various percussive adjuncts. When she struck it with a mallet, but gently as if massaging away its brassy stress, the sound was an acceptable cacophony.
She was pleased to see me. We exchanged bows, hers slightly deeper than mine, an unnecessary mark of affection. “How did it go?” she asked. I told her about the declining moral standards. I had witnessed men and women shaking hands instead of bowing, diners unable to grasp the true eating implements properly (and calling for a fork.) We drank more wine, we nibbled at slices of kasutera. Genji, whom Meredith had kindly taken in like an orphan, came out to greet me.
I explained to her the exact nature of my actions. “When Miyoshi is awakened by the lashings of his harlot, his horror will soon be replaced by scientific curiosity. A woman without a heart who is still alive is a strange discovery. The plum will have lodged in her throat. Miyoshi will make the connection between the fruit and her sudden immortality. He is a man of true vision. The chemists of his Corporation will analyse the juice. An immortality drug will be on the market within a decade. Garage synthesists will ensure global availability.”
Meredith was sombre. “No longer able to die, the citizens of your Earth will bar themselves from Heaven.” I could not understand her lack of zeal. Or rather, I could understand it but refused acknowledgement. Success meant I would now be able to destroy myself. She would no longer enjoy my company. A rending weakness.
I said goodbye with informal swiftness, not even looking back as I led Genji over the causeway to a quiet marshy bank. My pagoda roof had drifted into the centre and started to sink. I watched it as I bared my chest, drew my sword and tasted its gleam. Genji shed a tear of oil. He wanted to follow my example. But who would be there to sever the spinal cord of his brake cable? Consciousness is suffering. I had earned the right to break free. He had not.
I was lying in the reeds, part of nothingness, when the Celestial Horn began to call. Splinters of the broken apparatus were being driven under my toenails. Somebody was kicking me, images of my childhood jumped into focus. “Hiraoka! Hiraoka Kimitake!” Who was using my real name? I could only open my eyes to see.
The Archangel Gabriel and a lackey, the same who had destroyed my pagoda, were crouching over me. It was raining. They were dressed in old suits and carried twisted umbrellas. A rough looking Gypsy tandem rested on the causeway. Removing his tophat, shiny with age, Gabriel dipped it into the fetid waters and emptied it over my face. A tadpole wriggled up my nostril. The lackey (who I finally recognised as Joan of Arc) thought this hilariously funny.
“Wake up! God wants to see you.” Gabriel had a coarse Irish accent. When he replaced his hat, his halo struggled inside, warping its shape. He wore fingerless gloves; rubbing palms together, he produced enough static electricity to curl the ends of his dirty moustaches. Again, Joan of Arc burst into laughter. She was a simple child, the slackness of her facial muscles betrayed a mental degeneracy. “You’re in trouble now, you rascal,” Gabriel added.
With their unhelpful assistance, I staggered to my feet. I felt the wound in my side. It had disappeared. Genji was peering from some reeds, shaking with terror but too loyal to flee. I beckoned and, reluctantly, he approached. As I squinted at my surroundings, I saw that little had changed. Yet the decades pressed on my shoulders; I felt their weight like snapping turtles. “How long?”
“Not quite a century.” Gabriel folded his umbrella and gestured at his tandem with the point. “I told God to leave you dead. But he said that’s what you wanted. Follow us. Make sure you keep up. Purgatory was designed for the likes of you.” He mounted his saddle, waited for Joan of Arc to follow his example and then pushed off. I watched them totter down the causeway, picking up speed and howling as the cold rain smashed their faces. There was no time to think.
I climbed onto Genji and pedalled after them, my little legs stiff from inactivity. They led me away from the marsh, onto the rutted road, past the funfairs, the sticky Guignol horrors. Unable to match the pace, I fell behind. A mist hung over the sea, broken boats flickered in and out of focus, drifting aimlessly. My jaw worked against the sight, teeth champing on the cold steam.
Truth is cooked by time
Seconds cast the world to pan Paradise to pot.
I was losing my ability. It was a punishment for my failure. A form of sympathetic magic. An ironic situation. Failure required the instant sacrifice, ritual suicide, yet here I had been resurrected to confront my shame. My surroundings mirrored my humiliation. Even the calliopes were weary, indistinct. By now, I had lost sight of my escort. Towards the Hotel Descartes I continued, turning over Meredith’s words in my brain. In a curious way, I felt hungry for her scepticism. Am I doomed always to chose the role of victim?
The Hotel Descartes was in a dreadful state. Windows were boarded up and plaster was flaking off the outside walls. Gabriel and Joan were nowhere to be seen. The receptionist in the lobby glowered at me; one more century’s worth of shrivel. I began climbing the stairs on my own, up to number 49. But she called out; the sound of a rotten cork falling into a bottle of sour wine. God no longer had a double room. He lived in one of the cheaper singles round the back. We trudged gloomy corridors. The odour of damp cabbage greeted us like a friend who steals books. I grew faint, a flimsy echo of oblivion.
The receptionist left me in front of a door stained with graffiti, much of it carved into the wood in unholy hierograms. I had to use my own fist to knock. A hacking cough came in reply; I turned the handle and pushed into dimly lit squalor. There was no en-suite bathroom in this residence. A cracked sink, bloated with string vests and socks, stood next to a derisory washstand. God was concealed behind the grimy curtains, exposed feet in threadbare slippers.
“Ah, Yukio,” he rasped. “My disappointment exceeds all limits. You promised you would do something, we made a deal. I kept my side of the bargain. Why did you let me down?” He cleared his throat with a horrible gurgling and proceeded to mumble some incomprehensible litany. Had I not known better, I would have deemed him drunk.
I bowed my head. “I did my best. I know not what else I could have done. The plan was a neat one.” As God shuffled impatiently behind his curtain, I added: “I do not understand what went wrong. Did Miyoshi not play his part? Did the inhabitants of Earth reject immortality for other tricks? My dream has flaked all away.”
God whined. It seemed he was racked by sobs, an impossible notion. “It didn’t fail,” he replied. “On the contrary, it worked all too well. On your planet, within a single generation, death was unknown. So the spiritual gate to Heaven was welded shut. The elderly no longer swarm; in this respect, I am pleased. But men and women who cannot die have no use for God. I have been forsaken.”
“With all respect,” I answered carefully. “That was not part of my mission. I was employed to tighten up border controls. If your support is dwindling on Earth, increase it with a miracle or two. Demonstrate the divine wrath. It should be easy for you to fill the churches again. Forget the precept of faith for a time.”
The Holy slippers shifted, toes flexing in an untidy rhythm. Was God actually considering my advice, or were these the wriggles of some pantocratic anxiety? A sudden glare behind the faded fabric made me draw back; but this was no blinding halo. The flame snapped out and a curl of heavy tobacco smoke drifted towards the yellow ceiling. Coughing mucus, God grumbled and muttered to himself.
“My power is sustained by faith,” he said. “As people fall behind with their worship, my living standards drop. Why do you think I’ve had to take this blasted room?”
My mind raced. “On one Earth, humans have achieved immortality and taken to atheism. Surely this is a drop in the cosmological ocean? What about the loyal trillions?”
God snorted. “Immortal yes, but not infertile. They keep producing children, doubters like themselves. That Earth grows ever more crowded with unbelievers. When it reaches saturation point, I’ll be out on the streets. Homeless, I’ll be, hungry.”
“So you want me to do something about this as well? Return and find a way of sterilising the population?”
The curtain rippled. A burning cigarette fell onto one of the worn slippers, scorching a hole in the tartan. God shook it off with a spasm. “Forget about parallel dimensions and alternative Earths. I want you to concentrate on yours. The level of atheism has sapped my miracle-forming powers.” He started coughing again.
“I’ll try. I’ve got an idea already.”
And the voice that punctuated the coughing was desperate: “I hope so, Yukio. For Heaven’s sake!”
I used to believe that immortality was a reflection in a prism of dew, suspended from a sword. I used to reason it as the pivot between pain and beauty. The act, the gesture, is ephemeral; but it folds down upon itself. The final poems before the blade penetrates the flesh, the useless charges across some Okinawa of the mind; these are wrapped in the present like parcels. I saw eternity as nothing other than a petal of transience, folded the correct way.
Meredith premiered her latest piece on her veranda, with myself as the total audience. Even Genji was excluded, his aesthetic sense deemed inadequate. An elaborate set-up of reeds and cooking utensils chilled me with its exotic homeliness. It was a celebratory work, to mark my second visit to Earth. Very few return visas had ever been granted; not even Spinoza managed to obtain one.
My neighbour had hardly altered her appearance during my period of non-existence. Her long hair had been tied up in a messy bun, her nails were slightly longer. After she had sung herself hoarse, and dented an expensive set of iron woks, we enjoyed each other’s company on a less formal basis. “I missed you,” she said.
There was perhaps something accusatory in her manner. But I nodded politely and ignored her frustration. “I have destroyed death and must rid my world of birth also,” I stated. We sat under her bedroom window, which was open; wisps of perfume drifted out. I had never asked to visit this sanctum, though from my chair I was able to study its interior: her own Celestial Horn was draped in lingerie.
Since her demise, Meredith had planned an elaborate opera set in the interstellar void. Now I sketched a hasty libretto: “Listen to my scheme. As living space reaches a premium, there will be those seeking to relieve the pressure. Hopelessly impractical as they are, a fleet of vast starships could be constructed in orbit, to bear emigrants to alien pastures. A policy of lebensraum.”
Meredith twirled a reed between her fingers. “Difficult to execute properly. And it skirts the issue. God requires you to stop production of children, not to populate other solar systems. Beware of immersing yourself too deeply in fantasy.”
These were strong words indeed from my admirer. I shrugged with a flicker of impatience. “Allow me to continue. God knows the secret of cold fusion. If I can borrow the formula and whisper it in the ears of sleeping scientists and engineers, I can persuade them to develop huge reactors to power the starships. When ignited, the engines will flood Earth with radiation. Whole continents will be sterilised, populations will moulder, atheism will be thwarted!”
Meredith loosed her hair. I saw that her roots had turned grey. A theme I thought denied to dead poets had been returned to me: the utter loss of youth. “Tell me what you know of the universe,” she sighed. For once, I knew she did not want lyrics.
I recited the creed. “There are a huge number of parallel Earths, floating in bubbles of reality, like pieces of food in saliva globules. Every possible working out of every situation occurs in total. On one, Mishima was an ape; on another, a housepainter; on a third, a stitcher of kites. On mine, he was a writer and suicide. There is one Heaven, large enough to accommodate the beings of all dimensions, though not comfortably. God rules the system like a chef who distrusts his whisk. We are his devoted servants.”
Meredith inhaled deeply and gripped my arm. “Suppose this isn’t true? What if the opposite is the case? A single Earth and a huge number of parallel Heavens! We think of sentient beings arranged in a pyramid, with God as the apex. What if, in some of these alternative Heavens, the bricks of that pyramid were rearranged?”
I struggled to interpret her metaphor. Pyramids do not slant large in the Samurai consciousness. I shifted uncomfortably on my seat. “God not as a capstone, glaring white?”
She made a wedge of her fingers. “In many of those other Heavens, God might be a lower brick. In a few, the pyramid might have toppled. Or even be inverted completely.”
I was softly dumbfounded. “God as the weakest creature in the whole universe?” My laugh was unpleasant.
“Yes, but we wouldn’t know about it. We die and assume we ascend to the one true Paradise. What if this is the Heaven where God is ineffably feeble? We defer to his reputation, we empower him with our ignorance. A desperate front maintained by his angels.”
“It is atheism which erodes his power. He told me!”
“Perhaps he has nothing to erode. Maybe he just can’t keep up with the deception any longer. He relies on our unwitting charity. We provide for all his needs. As we realise the truth, we stop working for him and reclaim what he owes us. Kicked out of a palace into a seedy hotel! What next? A basement flat with rats and damp?”
The notion was thoroughly tasteless to me, but not alarming. I saw a similar truth in my mortal time: the divinity of an emperor smeared in saccharine Yankee mud. I objected: “But how was I able to kill myself if God has no power? He really made it happen.”
“What exactly did you get up to on Earth, apart from carrying out a mission? Did you visit any tea houses?”
I nodded. She was alluding to drugs: I had indeed sampled the green beverage in Ginza. Thinking about it, the taste had been rather odd; but I attributed this to falling standards. “Some sort of catatonia inducing substance?” I whispered. I knew that God had agents in the Yakuza underworld capable of slipping such poisons into drinks. Even if this were untrue, it would be simple to adulterate my regular supply. All imports from Earth passed through the hands of the Cherubim-Gestapo.
“Think about it before you descend,” Meredith suggested. This was a hint for me to depart. I had erected a makeshift tent in the ruins of my pagoda. As I finished my wine and stood, she touched my arm. I stiffened and burned with a medley of emotions.
“My ranch is large and lonely,” she said. “Perhaps one day you will consider…” She flushed, frowned and turned away.
I wanted to hold her in my arms, nestle my head in her bosom, but I felt unable to move. My manners are too refined. She continued: “We are, after all, more than just friends.” While she faltered, I bowed and made my way quickly to the security of my bicycle. Tomorrow, I vowed, I would confess my real feelings: an act of courage greater than suicide. Deeper than love for a country, for tradition.
Inside my tent, sword forming the central pole, stitched kimonos as silk canopy, I sat with Genji and reflected on my sins. If the hierarchy of Heaven really was reversed, I had been acting without absolute orders and thus without moral safeguards. My creation of an immortal human race was not right in the assured, deontological sense. I was responsible for the consequences. Furthermore with only one Earth instead of many, I had no chance to dilute my guilt. It confronted me like a mother: nor was I able to plead bullying by angels. In Meredith’s revised cosmology, these were stronger than God but weaker than poets.
There were other fears. I had doubtless incurred the wrath of those Gods who existed in the alternative Heavens. Would they act against me? Was there no way to redeem myself? Might I enlist the aid of the devils? But Lucifer had once been God’s right-hand entity, presumably the second weakest creature in the universe. Were men and women the real inheritors of this dimension? Or were there lesser beings higher up on the inverted pyramid? I craved Meredith’s cool logic.
After a troubled sleep, I resolved to abandon my second assignment. But when I returned to the lodge, Meredith had vanished. I called out in vain while flamingos scattered from the sunset like traitors. I circled the house and tapped at the windows.
The rear door was ajar. I passed through into chaos. Garments were strewn on the floor, musical scores flapped underfoot. There was a loud rustling coming from the bedroom. Repressing an urge to knock, I pushed into the intimate space. Gabriel looked up in fright; I had caught him searching through Meredith’s underwear. The force of my anger surprised us both. “You downy pervert! Where is she?”
He leered, a pair of stockings dangling from his grubby hand. “God has been listening to your little chats.” He gestured at the Celestial Horn which stood on a dressing-table behind me. “These beauties operate both ways, mister. We heard the blasphemy. She’s been sent downstairs, of course, where all opponents of the regime end up. All the way down to Hell!” Rubbing the silk over his bristly chin, he added: “Better get on with your mission if you don’t want to join her!”
“I’m not going,” I replied, refusing to bow.
An exasperated light came into his eyes. “Dissent, eh? You’re in it now, my friend. Wait till God hears about this. Tip you over the edge of Heaven, he will, like that tart of yours. Brimstone for supper tonight. And a trident in the backside, no question.”
I knew he was lying. I jumped forward and seized the Archangel in a headlock. His feeble resistance confirmed everything Meredith had said. Twisting his arm behind his wings and applying suitable pressure, I soon had the truth out of him. He shouted: “We had a word in her ear. Joan of Arc came round last night!” I knocked off his worn tophat, revelling in my power. He gargled: “She accused you of unnatural habits. All sorts of vile business. Said you were a debauchee. Now let me go! I’ve got the damned teleological arthritis in my bones!”
I was aghast. “This is nonsense! Meredith wouldn’t leave me because of gossip. What exactly did you tell her?”
Though in considerable pain, Gabriel managed a chuckle, greasy lips flecked with spittle. “She didn’t seem to mind about the animals. It was the young boys she took exception to. Pity, she seemed such a liberal. I suppose she couldn’t face you after that.”
Stunned, I dropped the pathetic figure onto the bare floorboards. A hollow space had opened in my stomach, just above the hollow space where my guts had once squirmed. I stood over the Archangel and drew my sword. He whimpered and shut his eyes. Vermin, for whom my blade was a bailiff, were already abandoning their host, scuttling from his matted locks into the shadows. I would not let them use me as a new abode; I stamped those few who approached into elegant streaks, a calligraphy of crushed chitin and borrowed blood. Perhaps in this language I read a word of restraint. At any rate, I did not sunder the fool; my sword descended and his faded halo clattered in two pieces under the bed.
I left him sobbing and writhing in his own filth. There is no pride to be earned in destroying large insects. Departing Meredith’s ranch and beckoning to Genji, I threw a leg over his crossbar and we trundled into destiny. There was only one way for God to salvage some honour. Kneeling at his feet, I would present my sword to him. I would ask him to do the decent thing: if he refused, I would assist.
When I reached the Hotel Descartes, I was alarmed to find it fallen almost entirely into ruins. Rubbish, old clothes and charred mattresses lay heaped against the walls. The roof had collapsed; the iron balconies sagged like intestines strung between poles. The entrance was locked. So I rang the bell until the mechanism broke; I pounded on the rotten door. As I turned to go, I noticed that one of the piles of linen was actually a hunched figure. A thrust with my blade soon had it moving – it was the receptionist, covered in bruises and blisters.
“I demand to know God’s whereabouts,” I cried.
She drooled and wheezed. I leaned forward to listen to her words. A little shaking made her mumblings more comprehensible. It seemed God had been evicted for non-payment of bills.
“He had a case of dynamite under his bed,” she croaked, tapping her nose. “Left a burning cigarette on the pillow before stomping out. Don’t know where he went. Good riddance, I say!”
Before I could pull away, she flung her arms around my neck and let loose a horrible shriek: “Took the towels before he left! Always said he was a thief. Strange stains in the bathroom!”
A useless gesture: I removed her outraged head.
A journey of a thousand miles does not always begin with a single step. Ask Genji for details. His wheels are warped, his frame is twisted, but he is still faithful. On the hills I dismount and carry him on my back. I will never abandon him, though he pleads to be thrown into a roadside ditch. When he falls apart I will build a shrine from his pieces. After that I will walk all the way. I shall plant a tree for him in Eden. One of my few inspired ideas was to present my visa to D.H. Lawrence. I told him that Earth needed his talents. In fact, I simply want the Garden to reclaim some of its original beauty.
I travel Heaven, looking for God, looking for Meredith. Because she never deceived me, I search for him in the basement flats of the largely empty cities I encounter. Paradise is not overcrowded after all – it was a deception. The few people I meet also believed they were privileged. A new mood has gripped Heaven: with God’s disappearance, people are forced to be free, to shoulder responsibility, to make choices. I am unprepared for such changes. My mentality is too rigid, I belong in a starched past which never really existed. I lust for death more than ever. My quest is the same as always: blood and blossoms.
In a dingy cellar in the last town I passed through, I chanced upon a group of my fellow countrymen. They were mostly ancestors, with a few later emperors and businessmen. After I forced an entry, they invited me to sit with them over a pot of green tea. Even here I was unconsoled: it took a great deal of restraint not to turn on Hirohito and blame all my troubles on him. By renouncing his divinity he subjected our culture to a fatal paradox. It set a precedent. A perfect being cannot claim mortal flaws. Once a god always a god. Aware of my hate, he said: “Students and deities always end up in basement flats.”
There is still hope in my aching brain. I like to imagine there are creatures able to grant me my wish. In courtyards of deserted tenements, dying angels are pegged out on washing-lines; beyond the cities they are worked mercilessly in the fields. The revolution is spreading. If angels are stronger than God, and we are mightier than angels, who can we look up to? There must be something. When I find God I shall ask him a single question. From Mishima, the very lips. Down there, in his foul basement, before I cut him into three pieces, a trinity of holes, I will demand to know the address of his landlord.
Copyright © 2002 by Rhys Hughes.