King Asa even removed his mother Maacah from being
queen mother because she had made an abominable image
for Asherah. Asa cut down her image and burned it at the
Wadi Kidron. But the high places were not taken out of
Israel. – 2 Chronicles, 15:16
I do not remember sleeping, only waking, the light against my eyes. I curled inward, shielding myself from the light, more asleep than awake. Then I found myself lifted into sunlight so intense I cried out before I could stop myself.
The last thing I remembered, a boy shining silver, bright as the moon. I had taken him in my arms and his mouth tasted of sweet honey and the sour elixir designed to slow his heart until he fell into my depths in sacrifice.
Where had the silver boy gone?
Now I am enveloped in light too bright to see. I reach out with all of my considerable power and latch onto the first thing I encounter, pulling myself into the soothing darkness of a person I cannot see.
When I open my eyes again, I have adjusted to the light but not the angle. I have grown shorter.
I rest and gather my wits, peering for the moment at what lies directly in front of my face: a rocky vista, glimmering with phantom heat shimmers, the immediate surroundings upheaved and tumultuous, a construction site of white tents and piles of random earth. I watch a man with a tiny brush work grains of sand away from a giant stone face, partially unearthed and covered by a piece of green fabric. That stone visage brings me back to myself, for I stare at my own image, towering and monstrous. I remember it atop a pillar of gold, but now it lies forgotten, though the man kneeling with his brush sparks a memory of devotees knelt in similar positions of worship.
How long did I lie asleep? I reach for the memory of movement and turn my head, feeling delicious young muscles leap at my command. Before me loom the ruins of a stone building, one I do not remember, though I recognize the symbol on the facade well enough. That wooden cross of cracked and decaying boughs sparks more memories than I am prepared to deal with. I feel the fire of anger in my stomach.
That symbol had been the idol of the destroyers, that upstart cult of blasphemers. They had toppled my image in the outlying cities, daring to call me a whore, building their repressive temples of stone on my sacred places. Their axes cut into my groin as they felled my divine groves; their shovels choked my moist regions with dust.
The memory of it causes old anger to boil up, and I throw back my head and scream at the sky with the rage of it. I reach out, a thin, unfamiliar arm in my vision, and rip the offending cross down. It falls to the ground with an earthshaking thud, sending up clouds of sand. I didn't realize how big it was or how my lungs would react to the cloud of dust. I fall, choking, and my vision swims, tiny insects biting into the soft tissues of my eyes.
A flurry of activity follows the fall of the cross, shouts of alarm and men running, their white shirts sweat-stained and clinging to their bodies in the heat.
Someone speaks in an unfamiliar language close to me and I turn my head, this time without thought, to see a man kneeling, his face level with mine. He directs more garbled words at me and I reach into his head in search of understanding, the fingers of my consciousness gliding quickly through a whirl of image until his speech becomes clear to me.
“Are you okay?” he asks. He leans toward me and his shirt gapes open across his golden flesh, allowing a delicate gold cross into view. I recoil from it and, when he reaches for me, I spit in his face. No one who wears that symbol can be trusted.
He grabs me by the arms and I identify the pressure as pain. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
He must have understood my confusion as fear because he eases his grip, his expression softening. “I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
I do not know the response to this simple question. The language still sounds distorted and I struggle to comprehend. I don’t know yet if I am all right.
I can’t take my eyes off that cross. It looks blameless against the man’s smooth skin, but I remember it emblazoned on the foreheads of mad destroyers, their eyes glazed with religious fervor as they cut the babies from the arms of the temple maidens. They had woven it into standards of glittering cloth, soaked in the blood of the innocent. My innocent people.
I pull easily away from the man and walk out into the desert. I hear him call after me so I run, delighting in the ease of speed despite my current disorientation. In moments I round a dune into the solitary expanse of sand and scrub.
I stretch my arms out, trying to gain a sense of myself. The limbs look slim, female, the skin a dusty golden sprinkled with freckles. The legs the same; a dainty silver anklet encircles one ankle, and I see to my horror that a tiny cross hangs from it. With a gasp I rip it away, leaving a thin welt on the flesh, and fling it into the desert.
“Why did you do that?” The voice speaks in my head in tones near panic, fear clogging the sensibility of the other in my mind.
I sink down on a rock and turn inward, away from my external reflections. The best way to know one’s body is to know the one who inhabits it.
For the sake of her sanity I construct a mental room in a style I find comforting: draped windows overlooking the desert, cushions on the floor, a flagon of cool wine. Many times during my human phases I had lived in such rooms, simple, rich, elegant. I appear to her in my preferred form, allowing her the shape I now inhabit.
She curls in the corner, a slight, tiny thing with slender limbs and dark hair. She screams to find herself in an unfamiliar place and I let her scream, allowing hysterics to run their course.
While she shakes and cries, I take the body farther into the desert, walking over the hot rocks to a conclave of deep shade under an ancient olive. While I am perfectly capable of moving a possessed body and even conversing with someone outside while holding an internal dialogue with another, it is easier to have a conversation without distraction. And the conversation I need to have with this one is important.
Once I have the body settled, I enter the mental room and pour the wine into a glass that manifests in my hand. “What’s your name?” I ask, holding out the goblet.
I could have discovered this by simply looking; I have access to all her thoughts and memory by virtue of inhabiting the same mental space. But I think it’s rude to rifle through someone’s thoughts without their permission. I prefer to ask.
She starts and looks at me for the first time. My preferred shape is not intimidating and I see her relax slightly. She sniffs and I hand her a piece of linen to wipe her eyes. She takes a swallow of the wine and sputters, unused to alcohol.
“What’s your name?” I ask again.
I recognize the Persian root of the name, the first familiar thing in what had heretofore been a disconcerting day.
“What’s yours?” She asks me.
“Maria,” I say, reaching for a name she would find familiar, landing on the word for “sea.”
“Where are we?” she asks.
“Tell me about the Christians,” I say, ignoring her question.
“The Christians?” Her brow furrows as she remembers. “You tore off my anklet!”
“I did,” I agree. “Why are there so many Christians here?”
Gaining some bravery in the face of a stable external environment, she sits up and almost glares at me, though her expression quivers, her fear not entirely dissipated. “My father gave me that charm.”
I stand, and despite the relative normality of my chosen form, some of my power leaks through as I ask again in a tone that demands a response, “Why are there Christians here?”
She flinches. “I don’t know what you mean. There are Christians everywhere.”
I look into Isabetta’s memory and see the cross everywhere. Frantically I scan through her thoughts, different places, different spaces and it looms above cities, towering above buildings, screaming from throat and wrist and ear. I pace to the window and look out over the familiar landscape. This view had been the one from my last bedroom in the year the Romans labeled 423. The last time I had been awake.
This recollection necessitates a new question. “What year is it?”
“2007,” she says.
I clutch the window sill, my fingers cracking the wood. “What …?” I spin on her and she cowers as wrath shines from my face. “What did you say?”
The light from my eyes raises blisters along the tender flesh of her lips, and she buries her face in her hands.
With difficulty, I restrain myself. I’ve slept for sixteen hundred years, a millennia longer than I had ever slept before. In my sleep the destroyers have taken over my world with their false and dangerous god. I gasp with the weight of this unexpected event, losing control of my shape for a moment. My hair, the color of embers, grows in an instant past my feet and pools on the floor around my toes.
I take a deep and calming breath. I do not want her insane and, by the look in her eyes, she teeters on the edge. I need her to make sense of this, and so I run my hands over my head, and my hair obliges me by leaping into a braided coil.
“Isabetta, I need you to listen to me very carefully.” I do not approach, sensing the depth of her fear. “This is very important and I need your help.”
She lifts her face slightly and peers at me through her fingers. I recognize her youth in this gesture; she couldn’t be more than fourteen. Though in my time a woman that age would have her own household to run, they did not yet have the capacity for true wisdom.
“I will tell you where we are and what’s happening, but I need you to help me in return.” I will try this tactic first. If it doesn’t work, I can always throw her out, but her memory would go with her, and my ability to navigate through this startling year and unfamiliar culture would be hampered.
“In my time, I was called Goddess and worshipped by all the people of this land. Deities sleep the same as everyone else, but I have slept too long. In my time, hordes of rogues swept my land, burning my villages and destroying my gardens. They brought the unimaginable with them in the form of their new god, and they raped my women with your god’s power.”
I turn away from her as the rage boils from this memory. Rape had been unknown in my land. To defile a woman was to desecrate the goddess herself because all women are part of me. The infidels had dared this atrocity and I had been unable to prevent it. My power had failed me in the face of this mindless hatred. I didn’t have the weapons to combat such brutality, and I had withdrawn from my people in shame, thinking my presence did more harm than good. Now I realize that I had made a colossal mistake. I had abandoned them at the worst possible time. This child with her empty totem proves that the infidels had won.
I turn to a new question. “What is this place?”
Isabetta looks uncertainly through the windows at my created vista. “This place?”
“No,” I say with patience, allowing the illusion to fade so we look out at the sand dunes. “The digging, what construction is this?”
She sinks back as the view melts and shifts outside the windows, her breath coming out in a gasp. “It’s my father’s archeological site.”
“Archeological.” It takes me a moment to find the meaning of the word but then I understand. “You’re digging up my city.”
“Your city?” Isabetta sits up straighter. “Who are you?”
Who am I?
I remember myself in the beginning, opening my eyes to swirling darkness. I remember sound, a vast booming in the void. I remember sitting on the ocean watching the first sun rise, how the light refracted and dazzled my eyes. I remember the earth unfolding like a flower before me, each moment of life a dew drop that I drank and swallowed with all the greed of a child. Those memories are sporadic and fractured, moments in eternity. I can even glimpse something before this time, distorted colors in vast space. What I remember most of all is my city and my people with all of their fleeting and intense desires, bathing me in milk, feeding me with honey and saffron.
Who am I? I am a deity older than time, though nothing like what these Christians conceive as divine. They have constructed an elaborate god based loosely on a Sumerian deity named El, but then exaggerated beyond all reason.
“I am one lost,” I respond to the question. “I have slept too long and the world has gone mad.” A streak of brilliant white appears in my hair and crosses down my face, bleaching my skin pure white in an instant.
“Please don’t hurt my baby.” Isabetta whimpers and cowers back, her hands crossing her belly.
Baby? I had not sensed another and the girl, as she imagined herself, did not appear to be pregnant. I reach my consciousness into the body and find it: a fleeting flutter of life, brand new, a few weeks old. It exists as a small cluster of biological matter around a heartbeat, weeks before brain activity, at least a trimester before sentience.
No longer having the patience to question Isabetta further, I reach into her memory. I first find her crying in a pristine white place I cannot recognize amid odd ceramic statuary with no form or discernible purpose. She weeps over a thin, white stick with two pink lines stained upon it. This seems to tell her of her pregnancy in a way I cannot understand; I comprehend her fear and horror well enough, however. I look for the conception and see nothing. Perplexed, I dig deeper into her layers of consciousness and find her in a state of complete terror, a man grunting inside her, cursing.
A rape. She had conceived her child, against all odds, by rape. And she’s now repressed the experience. She had been walking home and had been followed; I cannot see the man’s face, only an outline, distorted by her fear, in the shadows.
So why had she not simply flushed it away? My women had done such without thought, especially after the Christians came. Finding themselves unclean, they drank the bitter tea and it brought relief after an inconsequential hour of stomach pain. The tea brought their moon blood, flowing heavy for a few days and then forgotten.
I look for her reason and find myself in one of the Christian temples. I recoil, then steady myself against my aversion. Isabetta kneels weeping before the gruesome crucified god, begging for forgiveness. It takes me a moment to understand that she believes flushing away the child will endanger her immortal soul.
I laugh and withdraw my mental fingers from her memory. The notion that an abortion could endanger one’s soul seems a primitive and superstitious concept. Everyone in my time understood that a baby did not form until it became capable of motion. Even then it was considered the mother’s property to do with as she wished. If the child was born deformed or otherwise flawed, the mother made a decision. Even if the baby was left and exposed to die, the child’s soul would simply reenter the heavens and be born again. Not all children are meant to survive, and the idea that death would place an inalterable stain on either mother or child was absurd. Everyone knew these things.
“Why do you care about a baby that was forced upon you?” I ask her.
She lifts a tearstained face from her hands. “God meant it.”
“God meant for you to be raped.” It comes out as a statement; the question is too incredulous.
“He moves in mysterious ways.”
“You don’t really believe that?” I ask.
“It is not for this sinner to question the ways of the almighty.”
I laugh aloud and keep smiling as her eyes widen at me. “Who taught you that?”
“Well, your father is a fool.” I glance out over the desert, forgetting that I had changed the view to reflect our actual surroundings. “Any reasonable father would have flushed the child away.”
“You can’t say that!” She rises to her feet, forgetting her fear. “It’s a sin.”
“You Christians are all such idiots. I cannot understand how you managed to take over the world.” I hold my hands out, mollifying. “Look. It’s your baby and your decision. I don’t care.”
At that moment the man who had grabbed me after the cross fell appears on the horizon.
“Father!” Isabetta cries out.
“Ah, the man of the day.” I relinquish control of the body, withdrawing to behind her eyes, keeping one mental finger firmly planted in her emotions. I need time to think, to gather information as I make a plan.
I had deserted my people, and time had passed me by. I feel stronger than ever, well rested, but my people had fallen to dust while I lay sleeping, and I have no idea what this world now holds for me.
Isabetta runs into her father’s arms and I feel a confused rush of emotions. I smile to myself. Her words in his defense may have been strong, but I feel her true feelings, and rage lies buried deep under her veneer of gratitude and respect. She loves him but she hates him, too, respects him for not hating her for being raped and unclean, but needs him more, needs him to help her deliver a child that fundamentally sickens her, though she tries to feel love for it.
“There’s a woman,” Isabetta babbles. “In a room in the desert.”
“What?” The father grabs her by her arms, fingers biting into the bruises he had made when I spit in his face. I decide he feels confused as well. His daughter sparks both adoration and disgust. So many layers of repression exist in both of them that I find it is difficult for them to function, bogged down in confusion about their own emotional states. I have never inhabited the mental space of people who lie to themselves so much.
“I think you have a touch of heat stroke,” the father says, placing a restrictive arm around Isabetta’s shoulders. “Let’s get you out of this sun.”
She lets herself be led, and I let both of them go back to a large tent set under the scrub. Inside it feels much cooler, and Isabetta sinks down on a low couch covered opulently with carpets and soft fabric. I understand that he has brought her with him to this remote place due to her delicate condition; he plans to stay until she delivers. She doesn’t know that he plans to keep the baby, feeling it the price for her unintentional sin. She wants to give it up without laying eyes on it.
I laugh aloud; the sound booms in the confined space and he whirls. The water glass he holds crashes to the carpets. It feels so good to be embodied again that I stretch my arms out, pushing the muscles past the natural point, loving the feeling of them stretching and contorting. I sense Isabetta cry out and I push her back deep into the depths of her own mind, putting her to sleep as easily as I had taken control of her body.
The father, overcome by the sight of his daughter twisted and contorted, rushes forward, and I push him away without thinking, not even bothering to use my limbs. He flies backward and falls heavily to the floor. I rise to my feet, overestimating and rising three inches off the ground before bringing myself under control.
To give him credit, the father doesn’t scream. He rises to his feet, bringing the cross he wears around his neck out and brandishing it at me. I laugh and melt it. The molten metal eats deep grooves in his fingers, dripping to burn smoldering holes in the rug, and he finally screams. I leave him writhing and walk out into the desert air. I want to examine that church from a closer vantage point.
I pass men rushing to the father’s screams. Some of them glance at me but no one tries to stop me. I find the church deserted as more people run to the commotion.
Having missed the past sixteen hundred years, I cannot place the architecture in time. The door has been unearthed and I walk into cool gloom, the only light from soft spotlights positioned irregularly through the large main room. Rude benches lie scattered and broken across the floor, the wood brittle from time and the blistering desert air. Thick pillars hold up the small dome overhead, and I walk beside the walls, peering up at tiled frescos. The colors have faded and run, but I can still make out scenes of torture: mighty serpents consuming people alive, pits of fire, bodies impaled on spikes and dismembered. Everywhere I look I see the image of the tortured god, his eyes cavernous, body emaciated. Over the alter space he stands in dirty white robes, driving back a three-headed dragon I recognize as a perverted image of myself.
My people conceived me in many images, but one of my favorites had always been the serpent of wisdom with her trinity of heads, each one symbolizing a different aspect of a woman’s life. It angers me to find that image blasphemed in such a way, and I stand before the corruption, rage filling my being. As I look up at the perversion, I wonder if I should retreat back into sleep and dark oblivion. This world has no place for me. My cities have fallen to ruin, my people have become dust, my gardens entombed beneath the sand. The Christians have taken over the world but what do I care? They can have it if they want it.
I tremble for a moment between rage and despair. I had withdrawn once and it had been a mistake. Do I really wish to desert humanity again?
The door slams open behind me, and I turn to find the man Isabetta knows as Father. He looks disheveled, covered in sand. A bright white bandage covers his hand.
He advances into the room, eyes burning and fixed upon me. “Who are you, demon?” he inquires, and I smile to be addressed in such a way.
Long before the Jews entered the land of Canaan with their vengeful and ridiculous God, the word daemon had referred to a teacher or instructor. One had been assigned to all of the royal children to instruct them in matters of state as well as of spirit. Only after the arrival of the small-minded followers of the new cult had the word been perverted to its current meaning.
He pulls an object from behind his back and I laugh to see a cross, wooden this time, ornamented with heavy stones. A new man enters behind Father, and I recognize the heavy robes and white collar of a Christian priest. I set the wooden cross afire with a glance.
Daddy curses and drops the object, reduced to glowing embers. The priest places a hand on Daddy’s shoulder and steps to the front, bringing up a Bible. “Lo, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death....”
Daddy’s voice quavers and joins in. “I shall fear no evil....”
I reach out with gentle mental fingers and probe at the priest, stimulating a flush of arousal in his groin. This man represents a new, though not worrisome, threat. Human beings are born with limited free will. Deities have a greater degree of free will, though we are not omnipotent in the greatest extent of the word. All beings, physical or spiritual, are limited by their makeup; nothing can be something it is not, even a god.
Faith is a profound expression of free will and, while I can shake a person’s faith, I cannot take it away. An ordinary person is easy to confuse and sway, but a member of the clergy is often much more difficult. Their closed mind presents a unique problem. No matter what I say or do, this priest will see only what supports his preconceived paradigm.
I give a mental shrug and levitate straight up, twenty feet or more, to the apex of the dome. Both men’s words trickle to a stop as they gape up at me laughing down at them. The dress Isabetta wears affords them a good view and so I reach under the skirt and pull off her thin undergarment. Nothing offends a Christian like a woman’s genitalia.
The priest averts his eyes but Father stares up, mouth stupidly ajar.
“Filthy priest,” I call mockingly. Switching to Italian, I continue. “Tutti gli angeli nel cielo li ridono, priest.”
He looks up and asks Father in a low voice, “Does your daughter speak Italian?”
“Not like that,” Father replies.
“Ich sehe innerhalb Sie, Priester. Der Teufel lebt dort,” I scream and laugh. I discover I am enjoying this. It feels delicious to exercise this power. I have been harboring this rage for sixteen hundred years, and the two men below become the focal point of all my anger and hurt, all my divine wrath. I pull Isabetta’s smock over my head and let it drift to the floor. I hang naked in midair.
“It’s not perfect German,” the priest is telling Father and I give a mental shrug. German had not existed the last time I roamed the earth; I pulled it from the head of the cleric below. I let my body drift down until I land gently on the floor. Naked, I advance toward them and smile to see both of them fall back before me.
“Are you ready to listen to me?” I ask.
“Yes,” calls the priest and then whispers to Father, lips hardly moving, “We need to restrain her until I can call in an expert.”
I stop in a beam of sunlight. Though it limits my vision, I know the golden light accentuates all of this young body’s attributes: the tanned skin, cascade of black hair, dusky nipples over the gentle swell of new life.
“My name is Asherah. In my time I ruled as goddess of these people you are digging up from the sand. Your Christians came into my land to murder and rape my people.”
“Demons do not name themselves,” the priest returned. “They give power to the one who knows their name.”
This angers me. “That’s because I am not a demon!” I scream, projecting the air over Isabetta’s vocal chords with more force than any human could muster, sending the sound booming from the walls. The priest claps his hands over his ears, and I bring the tiles from the walls in deadly fragments, cutting into flesh, forcing both men to drop and cover their exposed skin.
I let Isabetta bleed from numerous lacerations; though I could heal this body with a thought, I know the blood disturbs my audience, and I enhance it with glamour until it seems I run with red. Mocking, I stretch my arms out, a gruesome parody of the crucified god at my back. Blood streams from my forehead, hands and feet. Enhancing the vocal tones with all of my power of illusion, I intone, “I am the mouth of madness. I am the primal scream. In the beginning I am called darkness. Lo! I am many. I am Legion.”
I reach out and throw open the door, letting in dust and light. All of the people congregated on the other side cower, listening. I levitate again, rising over the two men huddled before me. Engaging both sets of vocal chords with which every human is equipped, I employ an age-old technique: I speak two sentences simultaneously, one low and guttural, the other high and haunting. “Sono il vostro dio di sofferenza,” I tell them in Italian. In English, “I died for your sins.”
A woman at the front of the crowd screams, then collapses to her knees, crying out, “It’s the glorious mother! She returns to us!”
At this moment, a wicked idea occurs to me. There before me lies the way to get all these sanctimonious idolators to pay attention. And it is not by utilizing Isabetta’s abused body.
It is by using her baby’s.
I probe gently into that flutter. It is uninhabited, a small cluster of cells. This is the time I can enter that flesh and become a mortal form with all of my divine power intact. I have done this countless times throughout the ages, why not again now? This will buy me time, time to learn this foreign culture and these unfamiliar languages.
Then I will use their own doomsday prophecy to kill them all, and wipe this world clean.
Originally published in The Far Side of Midnight, 2008.