Maps in a mirror, p.76

Maps in a Mirror, page 76

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  “There’s always an ‘and yet,’ ” the alien sighed.

  “And yet. You come all the way out here, which ain’t exactly Main Street, Milky Way, and all you do is build these churches all over the place and sit around and jaw with whoever the hell comes in. Makes no sense, sir, none at all.”

  The alien oozed gently toward him. “Can you keep a secret?”

  “My old lady thought she was the only woman I ever slept with in my life. Some secrets I can keep.”

  “Then here is one to keep. We come, Mr. Crane, to worship.”

  “Worship who?”

  “Worship, among others, you.”

  Willard laughed long and loud, but the alien looked (as only aliens can) terribly earnest and sincere.

  “Listen, you mean to tell me that you worship people?”

  “Oh, yes. It is the dream of everyone who dares to dream on my home planet to come here and meet a human being or two and then live on the memory forever.”

  And suddenly it wasn’t funny to Willard anymore. He looked around—human art in prominent display, the whole format, the choice of churches. “You aren’t joking.”

  “No, Mr. Crane. We’ve wandered the galaxy for several million years, all told, meeting new races and renewing acquaintance with old. Evolution is a tedious old highway—carbon-based life always leads to certain patterns and certain forms, despite the fact that we seem hideously different to you—”

  “Not too bad, Mister, a little ugly, but not too bad—”

  “All the—people like us that you’ve seen—well, we don’t come from the same planet, though it has been assumed so by your scientists. Actually, we come from thousands of planets. Separate, independent evolution, leading inexorably to us. Absolutely, or nearly absolutely, uniform throughout the galaxy. We are the natural endproduct of evolution.”

  “So we’re the oddballs.”

  “You might say so. Because somewhere along the line, Mr. Crane, deep in your past, your planet’s evolution went astray from the normal. It created something utterly new.”

  “Sex?”

  “We all have sex, Mr. Crane. Without it, how in the world could the race improve? No, what was new on your planet, Mr. Crane, was death.”

  The word was not an easy one for Willard to hear. His wife had, after all, meant a great deal to him. And he meant even more to himself. Death already loomed in dizzy spells and shortened breath and weariness that refused to turn into sleep.

  “Death?”

  “We don’t die, Mr. Crane. We reproduce by splitting off whole sections of ourselves with identical DNA—you know about DNA?”

  “I went to college.”

  “And with us, of course, as with all other life in the universe, intelligence is carried on the DNA, not in the brain. One of the byproducts of death, the brain is. We don’t have it. We split, and the individual, complete with all memories, lives on in the children, who are made up of the actual flesh of my flesh, you see? I will never die.”

  “Well, bully for you,” Willard said, feeling strangely cheated, and wondering why he hadn’t guessed.

  “And so we came here and found people whose life had a finish; who began as unformed creatures without memory and, after an incredibly brief span, died.”

  “And for that you worship us? I might as well go worshiping bugs that die a few minutes after they’re born.”

  The alien chuckled, and Willard resented it.

  “Is that why you come here? To gloat?”

  “What else would we worship, Mr. Crane? While we don’t discount the possibility of invisible gods, we really never have invented any. We never died, so why dream of immortality? Here we found a people who knew how to worship, and for the first time we found awakened in us a desire to do homage to superior beings.”

  And Willard noticed his heartbeat, realized that it would stop while the alien had no heart, had nothing that would ever end. “Superior, hell.”

  “We,” said the alien, “remember everything, from the first stirrings of intellect to the present. When we are ‘born,’ so to speak, we have no need of teachers. We have never learned to write—merely to exchange RNA. We have never learned to create beauty to outlast our lives because nothing outlasts our lives. We live to see all our works crumble. Here, Mr. Crane, we have found a race that builds for the sheer joy of building, that creates beauty, that writes books, that invents the lives of never-known people to delight others who know they are being lied to, a race that devises immortal gods to worship and celebrates its own mortality with immense pomp and glory. Death is the foundation of all that is great about humanity, Mr. Crane.”

  “Like hell it is,” said Willard. “I’m about to die, and there’s nothing great about it.”

  “You don’t really believe that, Mr. Crane,” the alien said. “None of you do. Your lives are built around death, glorifying it. Postponing it as long as possible, to be sure, but glorifying it. In the earliest literature, the death of the hero is the moment of greatest climax. The most potent myth.”

  “Those poems weren’t written by old men with flabby bodies and hearts that only beat when they feel like it.”

  “Nonsense. Everything you do smacks of death. Your poems have beginnings and endings, and structures that limit the work. Your paintings have edges, marking off where the beauty begins and ends. Your sculptures isolate a moment in time. Your music starts and finishes. All that you do is mortal—it is all born. It all dies. And yet you struggle against mortality and have overcome it, building up tremendous stores of shared knowledge through your finite books and your finite words. You put frames on everything.”

  “Mass insanity, then. But it explains nothing about why you worship. You must come here to mock us.”

  “Not to mock you. To envy you.”

  “Then die. I assume that your protoplasm or whatever is vulnerable.”

  “You don’t understand. A human being can die—after he has reproduced—and all that he knew and all that he has will live on after him. But if I die, I cannot reproduce. My knowledge dies with me. An awesome responsibility. We cannot assume it. I am all the paintings and writings and songs of a million generations. To die would be the death of a civilization. You have cast yourselves free of life and achieved greatness.”

  “And that’s why you come here.”

  “If ever there were gods. If ever there was power in the universe. You are those gods. You have that power.”

  “We have no power.”

  “Mr. Crane, you are beautiful.”

  And the old man shook his head, stood with difficulty, and doddered out of temple and walked away slowly among the graves.

  “You tell them the truth,” said the alien to no one in particular (to future generations of himself who would need the memory of the words having been spoken), “and it only makes it worse.”

  It was only seven months later, and the weather was no longer spring, but now blustered with the icy wind of late autumn. The trees in the cemetery were no longer colorful; they were stripped of all but the last few brown leaves. And into the cemetery walked Willard Crane again, his arms half enclosed by the metal crutches that gave him, in his old age, four points of balance instead of the precarious two that had served him for more than ninety years. A few snowflakes were drifting lazily down, except when the wind snatched them and spun them in crazy dances that had neither rhythm nor direction.

  Willard laboriously climbed the steps of the temple.

  Inside, an alien was waiting.

  “I’m Willard Crane,” the old man said.

  “And I’m an alien. You spoke to me—or my parent, however you wish to phrase it—several months ago.”

  “Yes.”

  “We knew you’d come back.”

  “Did you? I vowed I never would.”

  “But we know you. You are well known to us all, Mr. Crane. There are billions of gods on Earth for us to worship, but you are the noblest of them all.”

  “I am?”

/>   “Because only you have thought to do us the kindest gift. Only you are willing to let us watch your death.”

  And a tear leaped from the old man’s eye as he blinked heavily.

  ”Is that why I came?”

  “Isn’t it?”

  “I thought I came to damn your souls to hell, that’s why I came, you bastards, coming to taunt me in the final hours of my life.”

  “You came to us.”

  “I wanted to show you how ugly death is.”

  “Please. Do.”

  And, seemingly eager to oblige them, Willard’s heart stopped and he, in brief agony, slumped to the floor in the temple.

  The aliens all slithered in, all gathered around closely, watching him rattle for breath.

  “I will not die!” he savagely whispered, each breath an agony, his face fierce with the heroism of struggle.

  And then his body shuddered and he was still.

  The aliens knelt there for hours in silent worship as the body became cold. And then, at last, because they had learned this from their gods—that words must be said to be remembered—one of them spoke:

  “Beautiful,” he said tenderly. “Oh Lord my God,” he said worshipfully.

  And they were gnawed within by the grief of knowing that this greatest gift of all gifts was forever out of their reach.

  SAVING GRACE

  And he looked into her eyes, and lo!

  when her gaze fell upon him

  he did verily turn to stone,

  for her visage was wondrous ugly.

  Praise the Lord.

  Mother came home depressed as hell with a bag full of groceries and a headache fit to make her hair turn to snakes. Billy, he knew when Mommy was like that, he could tell as soon as she grumped through the living room. But if she was full of hellfire, he had the light of heaven, and so he said, “Don’t be sad, Mother, Jesus loves you.”

  Mother put the margarine into the fridge and wiped the graham cracker crumbs off the table and dumped them in the sink even though the disposal hadn’t worked for years. “Billy,” she said quietly, “you been saved again?”

  “I only was just going to look inside.”

  “Ought to sue those bastards. Burn down their tent or something. Why can’t they do their show from a studio like everybody else?”

  “I felt my sins just weighing me down and then he reached out and Jesus come into my heart and I had to be baptized.”

  At the word baptized, Mommy slammed the kitchen counter. The mixing bowl bounced. “Not again, you damn near got pneumonia the last time!”

  “This time I dried my hair.”

  “It isn’t sanitary!”

  “I was the first one in. Everybody was crying.”

  “Well, you just listen! I tell you not to go there, and I mean it! You look at me when I’m talking to you, young man.”

  Her irresistible fingers lifted up his chin. Billy felt like he was living in a Bible story. He could almost hear Bucky Fay himself telling the tale: And he looked into her eyes, and lo! when her gaze fell upon him he did verily turn to stone, and he could not move though he sorely feared that he might wet his pants, for her visage was wondrous ugly. Praise the Lord.

  “Now you promise me you won’t go into that tent anymore, ever, because you got no resistance at all, you just come straight home, you hear me?”

  He could not move until at last she despaired and looked away, and then he found his voice and said, “What else am I supposed to do after school?”

  Today was different from all the other times they had this argument: this time his mother leaned on the counter and sobbed into the waffle mix. Billy came and put his arm around her and leaned his head on her hip. She turned and held him close and said, “If that son-of-a-bitch hadn’t left me you might’ve had some brothers and sisters to come home to.” They made waffles together, and while Billy pried pieces of overcooked waffle out of the waffle iron with a bent table knife, he vowed that he would not cause his mother such distress again. The revival tent could flap its wings and lift up its microwave dish to take part in the largess of heaven, but Billy would look the other way for his mother’s sake, for she had suffered enough.

  Yet he couldn’t keep his thoughts away from the tent, because when they were telling what was coming up soon they had said that Bucky Fay was coming. Bucky Fay, the healer of channel 49, who had been known to exorcise that demon cancer and cast out kidney stones in the name of the Lord; Bucky Fay, who looked to Billy like the picture Mommy kept hidden in the back of her top drawer, the picture of his father, the son-of-a-bitch. Billy wanted to see the man with the healing hands, see him in the flesh.

  “Mommy,” he said. On TV the skinny people were praising Diet Pepsi.

  “Mm?” Mommy didn’t look up.

  “I wish my foot was all twisted up so I couldn’t walk.”

  Now she looked up. “My Lord, what for!”

  “So Jesus could turn it around.”

  “Billy, that’s disgusting.”

  “When the miracle goes through you, Mommy, it knocks you on the head and then you fall down and get all better. A little girl with no arm got a new arm from God. They said so.”

  “Child, they’ve turned you superstitious.”

  “I wish I had a club foot, so Jesus would do a miracle on me.”

  God moves in mysterious ways, but this time he was pretty direct. Of all the halfrassed wishes that got made and prayers that got said, Billy’s got answered. Billy’s mother was brooding about how the boy was going off the deep end. She decided she had to get him out doing things that normal kids do. The movie playing at the local family-oriented moviehouse was the latest go-round of Pollyanna. They went and watched and Billy learned a lesson. Billy saw how good this little girl was, and how preachers liked her, and first thing you know he was up on the roof, figuring out how to fall off just right so you smash your legs but don’t break your back.

  Never did get it right. Broke his back, clean as could be, spinal cord severed just below the shoulders, and there he was in a wheelchair, wearing diapers and pissing into a plastic bag. In the hospital he watched TV, a religious station that had God’s chosen servants on all day, praising and praying and saving. And they had Bucky Fay himself, praise the Lord, Bucky Fay himself making the deaf to hear and the arthritic to move around and the audience to be generous, and there sat Billy, more excited than he had ever been before, because now he was ripe and ready for a miracle.

  “Not a chance in the world,” his mother said. “By God I’m going to get you uncrazy, and the last place I’m going to take you is anywhere in earshot of those lying cheating hypocritical so-called healers.”

  But there’s not many people in the world can say no more than two or three times to a paralyzed kid in a wheelchair, especially if he’s crying, and besides, Mommy thought, maybe there’s something to faith. Lord knows the boy’s got that, even if he doesn’t have a single nerve in his legs. And if there’s even a chance of maybe giving him back some of his body, what harm can it do?

  Once inside the tent, of course, she thought of other things. What if it is a fraud, which of course it is, and what happens when the boy finds out? What then? So she whispered to him, “Billy, now don’t go expecting too much.”

  “I’m not.” Just a miracle, that’s all. They do them all the time, Mommy.

  “I just don’t want you to be disappointed when nothing happens.”

  “I won’t be disappointed, Mommy.” No. He’ll fix me right up.

  And then the nice lady leaned over and asked, “You here to be healed?”

  Billy only nodded, recognizing her as Bucky Fay’s helper lady who always said “Oh, my sweet Lord Jesus you’re so kind” when people got healed, said it in a way that made your spine tingle. She was wearing a lot of makeup. Billy could see she had a moustache with makeup really packed onto it. He wondered if she was really secretly a man as she wheeled him up to the front. But why would a man wear a dress? He was wondering ab
out that as she got him in place, lined up with the other wheelchair people on the front row.

  A man came along and knelt down in front of him. Billy got ready to pray, but the man just talked normal, so Billy opened his eyes. “Now this one’s going on TV,” the man said, “and for the TV show we need you to be real careful, son. Don’t say anything unless Bucky asks you a direct question, and then you just tell him real quick. Like when he asks you how come you got in a wheelchair, what’ll you tell him?”

  “I’ll say—I’ll say—”

  “Now don’t go freezing up on him, or it’ll look real bad. This is on TV, remember. Now you just tell me how come you got in a wheelchair.”

  “So I could get healed by the power of Jesus.”

  The man looked at him a moment, and then he said, “Sure. I guess you’ll do just fine. Now when it’s all over, and you’re healed, I’ll be right there, holding you by the arm. Now don’t say Thank the Lord right off. You wait till I squeeze your arm, and then you say it. Okay?”

  “Okay.”

  “For the TV, you know.”

  “Yeah.”

  “Don’t be nervous.”

  “I won’t.”

  The man went away but he was back in just a second looking worried. “You can feel things in your arms, can’t you?”

  Billy lifted his arms and waved them up and down. “My arms are just fine.” The man nodded and went away again.

  There was nothing to do but watch, then, and Billy watched, but he didn’t see much. On the TV, all you could see was Bucky Fay, but here the camera guys kept getting in front of him, and people were going back and forth all during the praising time and the support this ministry time so Billy could hardly keep track of what was going on. Till the man who talked to him came over to him again, and this time a younger guy was with him, and they lifted Billy out of his chair and carried him over toward where the lights were so bright, and the cameras were turned toward him, and Bucky Fay was saying, “And now who is first, thanks be to the Lord? Are you that righteous young man who the devil has cursed to be a homophiliac? Come here, boy! God’s going to give you a blood transfusion from the hemoglobin of the Holy Spirit!”

 
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