I do not know how long I slept. Could have been moments, could have been millennia.
Now, I could hear light, see wind, breathe the viscosity of the golden milieu that greeted me–tactile concepts that were but a dream of a taste of a distant memory. I may have detested the emptiness from where I’d come, but this terrible unending light was not much better.
“You’re going to ask whether this is the afterwards,” a silvery voice called out, and I flinched. I squinted against the spiked crystal shards the glare shot into my mind.
A figure resolved out of the light, arms and tentacles performing a complicated dance as they wove dainty flower chains. Evidence that this had been an endeavour of some effort wilted in a pile on a purple grassed hummock and around a thick green neck.
“Why would I ask that?” No air brushed across vocal chords, but words formed. Perhaps they were in my head.
I shaded my eyes in an automatic response, but the light came from all around, even from within. I dropped my hand and squeezed my eyes shut, willing the light to let me go. Either I succeeded, or the being took pity on me, because when I opened my eyes the beast sat before me full and whole, larger than a universe but no bigger than a house.
“Well, you think you’re dead, don’t you?” They could have been speaking to me across meters, or forever. The abomination did not look up from their task, and their voice remained smooth, steady, small. I waited for the clumsy appendages to tear the flowers, but the piles of necklaces, perfect and forgotten, and diligence afforded the task, belied my expectations.
Dead. This made sense. Or at least it angered me.
My fists clenched.
“Ahhh.” Dozens of eyes, all shapes, sizes and hue, blinked me up and down. Their opposing glitter and flatness made it hard to know where to look or how to read the ugly face meters above me. “You chose bipedal. Very good.”
“Of course I’m…that.” I settled a vague recollection of dignity across my shoulders. “What else would I be?”
“Whatever you want to be.” The single mouth stretched too wide across their commodious head, teeth sparking a warning behind the lipless edge.
“But how-?” I stopped and my grim smile matched the beasts in intensity. “I guess that would be easy for you to say. You are a God after all.”
A great blast of sweet breath staggered me back as the beast gave a large harrumph. “Names. They have little meaning to me. And don’t bother trying to remember your own.”
I teetered forward, wobbling much like the huge beautiful, shiny-skinned gut threatening to spill over my head.
“You’re not helping,” I grumbled, glaring up into bestial glory. Such a terrible smile, all wicked needle teeth and promise of oblivion.
The brute laughed a peel of bells. “I offend your sensibilities. For all your unbelief, this is not quite what you expected.”
Sweetly sick, I set my mouth in a thin line.
“I can’t read your mind, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Their voice pattered and soothed like summer rain. “But I’ve observed sentients before. Oh maybe not quite this close, but their expectations about death are always quite amusing. Myriad too. So many of you, but you all seem to think alike, much like you all die alike, in the end.”
I made as if to walk away, push this monster out of my mind, but no matter where I turned they sat before me, grinning.
I opened my mouth to defend reason and choice and many other concepts that tickled the back of my mind, but words stuck in my craw.
“No, theist matters were never your strong point, were they?” The beast’s chuckle reminded me of someone who made me be that way.
“Are you sure you can’t read my mind?” I planted my legs wide, hands on hips, and chose an eye to stare into.
“You’re disoriented. I get that. Death is not something one can move on from easily.”
I blinked, and the light voice, a complete anathema to the hideous visage, now came from closer to head height. An aesthetically pleasing face with a lipless warning of a mouth topped a square torso with four useful limbs. The skin remained green, and the best remained unconcerned with clothing and hair.
“So this is not any sort of After, and you’re not a god, or gods.” I found it much easier to look the beast in the eye now they only had two. “Where am I then, and who are you?”
The green beast discarded their floral ornamentation, hard work instantly forgotten, and indicated I walk with them all in one gesture. So we walked, but with no limits or landscape we may as well have been walking in place.
“Would a name make you feel better?” They asked, and I nodded. Then I shook my head, wondering why such a gesture came so easily, and they smiled. “Alright then. I have been afforded as many as they are useless. Kalima will suffice.”
Grim satisfaction spread across my face. “And I am Renita.” I surprised myself as the name came unbidden, unneeded.
Kalima shook their head, the strange light burnishing its skin copper. “Some sentients have such a need to name things. Can’t thing just Be?”
“You seem a little hung up on that concept.” I pushed on as our feet pushed against purple grass. “Can we move on? I need to know where I am, if I am not dead anymore.”
Kalima’s chuckle cascaded like a clear stream. “It’s been a very long time since I’ve had someone manifest, let alone express curiosity. You must have been very strong.”
“I don’t remember,” I muttered, a vague sense of frustration darkening my words. I stopped and stared at the beast, finding it easier to look up them as the moments went by. Perhaps it was the familiarity of the strong shoulders, the reassurance of its breast. “There are more like me?”
“Always have been, always will be.” They stopped a few paces ahead and threw away a gesture, seeming uncomfortable. Did they not know how to speak to me?
I caught up and we fell into pace. “Where are they? Can I meet with them?”
“For someone so strong from a well advanced race, you’re still stuck on some old fashioned ideas of what it’s like being mortal,” the beast replied cryptically.
“Oh please forgive me if I seem a little disorientated,” I replied, words heavy with sarcasm. “You try dying sometime, see how it feels.”
“Oh I do, on a regular basis,” the beast threw off, laughter tinkling. “How do you think I changed into this form that’s far more appealing.”
I swallowed my next words, anger and confusion a curious mix. Why would Kalima want to appease me, a mere non-mortal? Had they brought me back as their play thing?
“This place only has the meaning to which you afford it.”
“I don’t understand.” Curious that the beast showed curiosity for how I got here. Surely that was within their realm of influence?
Kalima painted each example with their hands. “Why do you see grass? Why is the light just so for you? Why do you walk like that, but not like this?”
They startled me by inverting their face next to mine, walking oh-so-casual as you please upside down. Their flesh defied gravity, not sagging towards the ground.
Suddenly claustrophobic, I flinched down and away. When I looked up, no floor or ground or walls were evident that Kalima walked upon. I straightened, and they took perverse pleasure in maintaining the demonstration.
“The laws of physics that I’m used to are…what? All in my head?”
“No, they exist.” The beast lengthened their stride, swinging arms and humming a tuneless cadence, as if taking a casual stroll.
“Just not here?” I furrowed my brow and hurried to keep up.
“You got it!”
“Then…this is a different universe,” I concluded, wrapping my arms around me. I felt naked though I imagined clothes on me.
“Clever girl!” They clapped, quick and light, arms tight against the flat green chest. “Skipping over magic, well into higher concepts. We will get on well!”
With a tight smile, I stepped up and away so that I walked on the horizontal to the beast’s inverted vertical.
“Now you’re getting the hang of it!” Their laughter peeled merrily off into the golden surroundings, but found no surface to echo off. Slight nausea sweetened my gullet and head.
I squinted into the distance, which may have been no distance at all, and tried to will into existence a mountain, a house, a tree. Nothing came of it. Perhaps I was still too weak from only recently being dead.
“Don’t get too cocky,” the beast said, glancing askance. “For all the change you think you can do, this universe is still mine.”
“Aha, and there it is,” I grinned, perversely pleased the beast had revealed their avarice.
“I am not a god, even though you desperately try to label me that,” they sneered.
“Then what are you?” Who wouldn’t want to be a god? What could be better than that?
“I am a Maker.” A careless flick of their green fingers and a building appeared before us. I stumbled to a stop only inches from brown mud brick walls, losing my horizontal equilibrium and falling into a graceless heap right side up to my old thinking. Green feet and knees, smooth and unlined, the type that had never seen physical use, appeared at my head. “Welcome to my home. Won’t you come on in?”
A rough wooden door opened with a satisfying creak and those green limbs entered. As I glanced up, I was afforded a decent view of the underside curve of their smooth buttocks.
The door remained open, the darkness beyond a heavy invitation.
“You’re very liberal with your information,” I called after them, pushing myself to a standing position. “That could be very dangerous. You don’t know how it could be used against you, what sort of person I am.” Indeed, how could I use this to get me out of here? Now that that claustrophobia had passed quickly, the latent agoraphobia settled back over me like a heavy, wet blanket.
A snort wafted back at me. “Suspicion makes your species so slow. Different universe, different rules. Time does my bidding here.”
I rushed through into the darkness. After the sustained hue of outside, it took me a long time to adjust to the gloom within.
The beast had changed. I narrowed my eyes, trying to discern the darker shadow against the dark. I pushed with my mind, like I had against the glow when I first arrived, but nothing happened–this was Kalima’s house.
The beast tsked. “I always forget the newly dead are so literal,” they sighed, and a light sprang up, a comforting glow from beautiful filigree metal and glass lanterns.
I blinked at the pillar of wavering shadow that stood a respectful distance away. The top of their two meter tall body flickered with a cool midnight blue flame, and movement suggested four limbs again. They had no face to focus on or genitals to differentiate–the beast did this to throw me off kilter.
“Another of your little deaths.” I tried to keep my voice light, though my belly trembled. The body of blue-black flame rippled with the silver laughter.
“How quaint. But yes, though no death is ever small.” The shadow undulated into a large wooden chair suggestive of a throne with a tall back and curlicues.
“You are very contradictory,” I sighed, fingers hovering near a familiar feast set out on the large table between us. A longing took up in my gut–no, where my gut would have been–and I grimaced at the memory of hunger.
“And you have no gatekeeper on your thoughts,” the beast said, though no mouth moved in the black hole of its head. “I like that.”
“Yes, I guess you’re right. I seem to recall that making me somewhat dangerous.” I hope the beast hadn’t lied when they said they couldn’t read minds, otherwise my fear-filled boast would do me little good. I gave in to easier cravings and sat on a humble stool, picking out fragrant cheese, bread, pastes and fruit. I avoided meat, and when I looked back around the spread for my second helping it had disappeared.
And so I ate, and so the beast watched.
“I have a proposal,” they said once I sat back satiated and licking my fingers.
I feigned disinterest with a bare raising of an eyebrow, pouring myself another cup of blood-thick wine.
“Stay,” Kalima asked. The barest hint of loneliness disappeared before I could grasp on to it, replaced with a universe of promise.
My other eyebrow matched its companion. “You barely know me. I’ve only just arrived. I could be dangerous.”
“You know none of that to be true.”
Who was the better liar of the two now?
I searched what I thought to be their face, attempting to penetrate the darkness. After that merest bleed of longing, they offered nothing.
“But I am dead.” Another deflection. “How useful would I be if I am a vagrant?”
“Wouldn’t you like to find out?”
Stunned, I covered my fear with a gulp from the liquid in my cup. It was not wine.
“And just where would I go if I didn’t stay here with you?”
“Anywhere and anywhen you wanted.”
The words pushed me away, but the voice pulled me in close.
I stayed. My imagination could not extend that far.
The first time they treated me to a Little Death, I came awake gasping furiously. I had escaped my earthly body only to be treated as capriciously as this?
The rebirth was glorious.
I learned my lesson well–any other death would belong to me.
And I made many of them. I remade myself in many images familiar to my first corporeal life, but none were as alien and terrifying as Kalima could make them self. This was their universe, and they knew them all because they had created them.
We sat one time atop a purple hill, observing the swirls of far off golden light. Kalima mocked me with a mirror image of my current form, ebony skinned, impossibly tall, skin bared to the eloquent breeze.
“To you they may only be a flicker quickly snuffed out,” the beast explained. In their kinder moments, they resorted to language more comforting to me. For all my exercises in death and rebirth, I still favoured that which mortality had borne in me. “But to me they each have their individual taste. They are my Creations coming home, ready to be reshaped and renewed.”
Incredulity stretched my night-filled brow. “But you said you were not a god.”
“And you said you were a non-believer,” they mocked back.
My head drooped, hating myself for my slowness. “It doesn’t take a god to create a universe.”
“Though many of them to think it does.” The beast grimaced and I grinned. When they mimicked my form, they also took on many of my facial expressions.
“Hard indoctrination to shake,” I teased.
“Yes, especially when they see all this and take some taste of it back with them.”
“Take it back? You could always fix that you know. Make them less spiritual.”
“Sure they do.” Or they were allowed to happen. I contemplated the words a moment longer. “Do you mean to say reincarnation exists?”
The beast sighed and reached out a dark hand to finger paint at the light. Swirls twisted and followed their fingers. “If you must insist on that word, then yes. There are only a finite number of souls to go around.”
I skipped around the idea, not daring to defy the beast’s wrath. They could hurt when the mood took hold.
“But the universe is massive beyond reckoning!”
“I applaud your belief. And yes, your universe is. Some of them aren’t.” The beast drew in a shimmering point, examined it as someone may examine a particularly loathsome insect or fungus, and flicked it away. A tiny sound, knife-edge on glass, scratched my mind.
“There is more than one…oh.”
Thoughts swirling like the lights before me, I went silent for quite some time, indulging in a Little Death to quiet my mind with that in between blackness. By then Kalima had bored of me, turned into a ten-storey multi-limbed being and wandered away to make more necklaces, this time out of stunted black trees.
I came back as I thought I remembered my original self–a grey, shapeless, wrinkled thing, a single thin braid or fibre down my bent and gnarled back. I stood at one of the beast’s massive toes and shouted up at them, but they didn’t hear me over the grinding of their fingers, which set the bones of my ears to aching and I walked far away to be rid of it.
I took to my own hill and tried to manipulate the light, but they did not bend or respond to my probing fingers. I wanted to populate my hill with cats and dragons and people I had loved, but their souls were far elsewhere. I had my suspicious about just which souls Kalima had control of.
“They’re not souls!” They berated me as we sat a-table, our table a mote in the middle of an empty, white plain. The beast indulged in food, but only to take pleasure in disgusting me–they ate unrecognizable things that wriggled, wobbled or smelled quite hideous as they popped them in any one of their many mouths.
“Whatever you want to call them then,” I snapped back, my appetite quite forgotten. I only drank the blood-thick juice of that first communion.
“Your words are too puny.” Their growl belied the forked tongue and green scaled limbs and tail they sported. “They are-” The beast uttered an unintelligible word that rolled the sky beneath my feet.
I swallowed my understanding of its importance with my last mouthful of wine.
A thought flashed across my mind like the lightening Kalima threatened me with.
“You control these souls–let’s just call them that for the sake of brevity, shall we?” I put up my hands, curled and callused. Kalima echoed the capitulation, but quicker, three digit hands falling to a scaled lap with a dry slap. “You Make their bodies, their universes and worlds they live in, and you control these souls. But do you Make them?”
Kalima died and remade them self before my eyes, a black oily thing shot through with ugly purple and green shimmer rainbows. When they spoke, the voice was as viscous and vicious as the body. “That’s a question for my brothers and sisters and-” another unintelligible word that vibrated the air.
“Can we?” I asked once I recovered some of my equilibrium and hearing. Cracks danced through the glacier beneath us.
The beast slithered away into the cracks in the ice, causing them to open wider and run faster.
They left me alone for a very long time, or it might have been no time at all. Boredom eventually won out over pride.
“Bored? How can you be bored with an entire universe at your disposal?” An invisible presence, their wind chime voice admonished me from atop a grey slate mountain.
“Be in, yes. Play with, now that’s something only you can do.” I wore a younger version of myself, glaring up the sheer wall of stone before me. “There’s only so much eternity a person can take.”
They went silent again and the golden light faded to a dusty yellow, as if seen through a dirty window.
Perhaps I had struck a nerve.
When Kalima spoke again, they manifested as a dancing yellow flame.
“What do you propose I do?” They demanded of me. “I’ve been there and done that. World building is a delicate balance. I’m best at repurpose and recycle.”
“Then try something new,” I said. “Repurpose yourself.”
“You mean become like them?” I did not like the disgust that muted the pretty tone.
“Look at the possibilities you’ve created. Pick one. Be it.”
“But…why?” The flame flared up.
“Why do anything? Because it’s there. Because it may help you refine your technique.”
“Hey, I’m not omniscient. I just plant the seeds. Evolution does all the hard work for me.”
“And you enjoy the havoc that it wreaks.” I crossed my arms across my youthful breast and tightened my face with a skewed mouth and set jaw.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoy it, but I do appreciate the odd pleasant surprise it throws up.” The beast’s unpredictable laughter sprinkled silver delight through the gold.
“So why wouldn’t you want them to evolve as far as they can go? I notice they have a tendency to die or kill themselves off long before they do.”
This time the silence was my answer. I had suspected Kalima and her unseen ilk of not having all the answers. Oh sure, they had a lot of them. Kalima abhorred the title but cherished the privilege of implied godhood. Why wouldn’t they want to be a better god?
Why hadn’t they furthered the god-pool? Why couldn’t I be a god?
As if sensing I had ceased recompense for their hospitality, the Kalima-flame drifted away, mixed with the light of the universe. I strained to see their outline against the maelstrom of souls. I could barely fathom that I was arguing with a being that could arbitrarily send me to any realm within their mastery, perhaps even sic me on their siblings as punishment.
And how would I know they had?
“Alright, let’s go.”
The beast appeared abruptly–young, tempting, dusky of skin, black of hair, eyes and smile.
Just like that. No preamble or preparation.
“You want to be like me?” I guessed, though I still hid my confusion well as to what I may have been Before. “What makes you think you’ll end up becoming this particular being.”
The beast frowned. “But don’t you want to go back like this, like you remember?” Their hand and eyes fluttered up and down my body.
“I’m not doing this alone. You’re coming with me.”
I suppressed a smile. A trick, this form of theirs had to be a trick.
“But where’s the challenge in becoming what I am? Haven’t you learned enough just from having me around? You have so many other species to choose from!”
“I could learn everything from any of the souls,” they sniffed, propping up their improbable breasts with folded arms.
“Have you? Before me? Ever?”
“Alright, if it’s a challenge you want, you have it,” the beast ground out between gritted teeth, fists clenched at their sides. They opened and spread one fist, right cheek lifting in a half smile. “Perhaps an interesting bunch of warrior arachnids who think in base eight. Or perhaps aquatic mammals with year long conversations in base four to wrap your head around. There’s also a high chance of becoming an amoeba in a primordial soup–that could be reasonably quick and painless, and we’d be back home in time for tea.”
“So be it. Whatever happens, happens.”
“You can’t go back with knowledge of this plane of existence. You’ll be a baby, naked of knowledge.” Kalima smirked. “How infuriating, having to start all over again.”
“No knowledge of reincarnation, no taking anything back. Gotcha.” I can play this game too.
An inkling of doubt sprung up about their control. My people had known something, in amongst all the superstition. “Just remember, you have to be the same.”
The smile fell from their face, and the silence and light rippled. He was something new.
I prodded that sore spot some more as we walked towards the light, a bubble of expanding crystal that sent hot shards into my mind. “Who will universe-sit while you’re gone? Your siblings?”
“Never!” They roared, an infinity of mistrust and misdeeds shaking the light, causing the crystal to chime and sing, and their steps faltered. “You mortals are always so linear. I’ll be here even when I’m not.”
Kalima rolled their dark eyes and the golden sky rolled in response.
“So you know-”
“No, I don’t.” Only the perplexed furrow on their brow kept me from checking the lie.
A minute hole opened in the shimmer before us, barely a prick in the sky. The opposite of light showed through, an inverse star, the black hole of my universe perhaps. Did black holes exist in others? I had forgotten to ask.
“Wait.” I held the beast back by the upper arm, and they looked down at my hand, forehead so tightly drawn a line appeared between their eyes. “If there are only siblings in their individual universes, who created you and them?”
“The universe,” they replied mildly, answer obvious, and I shook my head, forcefully reminded of my mortal origins.
Kalima stepped up to the pin hole.
“How will I find you?” I called after them. No push or pull encouraged me to follow, and I realized with a hitch in my chest I could stay here. Was I up to the task of wrangling a universe and truculent, unseen siblings?
“Parent, lover, friend, enemy. Or you may never. Who knows!” Kalima’s laugh tinkled back at me, sharpened by crystal, warmed by gold.
Looking back at the dimming light, eternity of my own making beckoned, cajoled, but righteousness stood stronger. There was no way I could let them run rampant through an unsuspecting world.
I swear the beast did a little jig as I cursed and dove after them down the tiny hole into the universe beyond.
Bio: AJ Fitzwater resides in Christchurch, New Zealand, knows no hobbits and has become adept at skipping cracks. The author has been published in such venues as Semaphore Magazine, Flash Me Magazine, and the “Tales For Canterbury” fundraising anthology, takes an interest in amateur voice acting, and blogs at pickledthink.blogspot.com, pontificating about the writer’s journey and other mind detritus. The author’s writing desk is often home to a somnolent calico cat.