Small Gods Page 7

He hoed the bean rows for the look of the thing. The Great God Om, although currently the small god Om, ate a lettuce leaf.

All my life, Brutha thought, I've known that the Great God Om-he made the holy horns sign in a fairly half-hearted way?-was a . . . a . . . great big beard in the sky, or sometimes, when He comes down into the world, as a huge bull or a lion or . . . something big, anyway. Something you could look up to.

Somehow a tortoise isn't the same. I'm trying hard . . . but it isn't the same. And hearing him talk about the SeptArchs as if they were just . . . just some mad old men . . . it's like a dream . . .

In the rain-forests of Brutha's subconscious the butterfly of doubt emerged and flapped an experimental wing, all unaware of what chaos theory has to say about this sort of thing . . .

“I feel a lot better now,” said the tortoise. “Better than I have for months.”

“Months?” said Brutha. “How long have you been . . . ill?”

The tortoise put its foot on a leaf.

“What day is it?” it said.

“Tenth of Grune,” said Brutha.

“Yes? What year?”

“Er . . . Notional Serpent . . . what do you mean, what year?”

“Then . . . three years,” said the tortoise. “This is good lettuce. And it's me saying it. You don't get lettuce up in the hills. A bit of plantain, a thorn bush or two. Let there be another leaf:”

Brutha pulled one off the nearest plant. And lo, he thought, there was another leaf.

“And you were going to be a bull?” he said.

“Opened my eyes . . . my eye . . . and I was a tortoise.”


“How should I know? I don't know!” lied the tortoise.

“But you . . . you're omnicognisant,” said Brutha.

“That doesn't mean I know everything.”

Brutha bit his lip. “Um. Yes. It does.”

“You sure?”


“Thought that was omnipotent.”

“No. That means you're all-powerful. And you are. That's what it says in the Book of Ossory. He was one of the Great Prophets, you know. I hope,” Brutha added.

“Who told him I was omnipotent?”

“You did.”

“No I didn't.”

“Well, he said you did.”

“Don't even remember anyone called Ossory,” the tortoise muttered.

“You spoke to him in the desert,” said Brutha. “You must remember. He was eight feet tall? With a very long beard? And a huge staff? And the glow of the holy horns shining out of his head?” He hesitated. But he'd seen the statues and the holy icons. They couldn't be wrong.

“Never met anyone like that,” said the small god Om.

“Maybe he was a bit shorter,” Brutha conceded.

“Ossory. Ossory,” said the tortoise. "No . . . no . . . can't say I-

“He said that you spoke unto him from out of a pillar of flame,” said Brutha.

“Oh, that Ossory,” said the tortoise. “Pillar of flame. Yes.”

“And you dictated to him the Book of Ossory,” said Brutha. “Which contains the Directions, the Gateways, the Abjurations, and the Precepts. One hundred and ninety?three chapters.”

“I don't think I did all that,” said Om doubtfully. “I'm sure I would have remembered one hundred and ninety-three chapters.”

“What did you say to him, then?”

“As far as I can remember it was 'Hey, see what I can do!' ” said the tortoise.

Brutha stared at it. It looked embarrassed, insofar as that's possible for a tortoise.

“Even gods like to relax,” it said.

“Hundreds of thousands of people live their lives by the Abjurations and the Precepts!” Brutha snarled.

“Well? I'm not stopping them,” said Om.

“If you didn't dictate them, who did?”

“Don't ask me. I'm not omnicognisant!”

Brutha was shaking with anger.

“And the Prophet Abbys? I suppose someone just happened to give him the Codicils, did they?”

"It wasn't me-

“They're written on slabs of lead ten feet tall!”

“Oh, well, it must have been me, yes? I always have a ton of lead slabs around in case I meet someone in the desert, yes?”

“What! If you didn't give them to him, who did?” “I don't know. Why should I know? I can't be everywhere at once!”

“You're omnipresent!”

“What says so?”

“The Prophet Hashimi!”

“Never met the man!”

“Oh? Oh? So I suppose you didn't give him the Book of Creation, then?”

“What Book of Creation?”

“You mean you don't know?”


“Then who gave it to him?”

“I don't know! Perhaps he wrote it himself!”

Brutha put his hand over his mouth in horror.

“Thaff blafhngf!”


Brutha removed his hand.

“I said, that's blasphemy!”

“Blasphemy? How can I blaspheme? I'm a god!”

“I don't believe you!”

“Hah! Want another thunderbolt?”

“You call that a thunderbolt?”

Brutha was red in the face, and shaking. The tortoise hung its head sadly.

“All right. All right. Not much of one, I admit,” it said. “If I was better, you'd have been just a pair of sandals with smoke coming out.” It looked wretched. “I don't understand it. This sort of thing has never happened to me before. I intended to be a great big roaring white bull for a week and ended up a tortoise for three years. Why? I don't know, and I'm supposed to know everything. According to these prophets of yours who say they've met me, anyway. You know, no one even heard me? I tried talking to goatherds and stuff, and they never took any notice! I was beginning to think I was a tortoise dreaming about being a god. That's how bad it was getting.”

“Perhaps you are,” said Brutha.

“Your legs to swell to tree trunks!” snapped the tortoise.

“But-but,” said Brutha, “you're saying the prophets were . . . just men who wrote things down! ”

“That's what they were!”

“Yes, but it wasn't from you!”

“Some of it was, perhaps,” said the tortoise. “I've . . . forgotten so much, the past few years.”

“But if you've been down here as a tortoise, who's been listening to the prayers? Who has been accepting the sacrifices? Who has been judging the dead?”

“I don't know,” said the tortoise. “Who did it before?”

“You did!”

“Did I?”

Brutha stuck his fingers in his ears and opened up with the third verse of Lo, the infidels flee the wrath of Om.

After a couple of minutes the tortoise stuck its head out from under its shell.

“So,” it said, “before unbelievers get burned alive . . . do you sing to them first?”


“Ah. A merciful death. Can I say something?”

"If you try to tempt my faith one more time-

The tortoise paused. Om searched his fading memory. Then he scratched in the dust with a claw.

“I . . . remember a day . . . summer day . . . you were . . . thirteen . . .”

The dry little voice droned on. Brutha's mouth formed a slowly widening O.

Finally he said, “How did you know that?”

“You believe the Great God Om watches everything you do, don't you?”

"You're a tortoise, you couldn't have-

“When you were almost fourteen, and your grandmother had beaten you for stealing cream from the stillroom, which in fact you had not done, she locked you in your room and you said, 'I wish you were-' ”

There will be a sign, thought Vorbis. There was always a sign, for the man who watched for them. A wise man always put himself in the path of the God.

He strolled through the Citadel. He always made a point of taking a daily walk through some of the lower levels, although of course always at a different time, and via a different route. Insofar as Vorbis got any pleasure in life, at least in any way that could be recognized by a normal human being, it was in seeing the faces of humble members of the clergy as they rounded a corner and found themselves face-to-chin with Deacon Vorbis of the Quisition. There was always that little intake of breath that indicated a guilty conscience. Vorbis liked to see properly guilty consciences. That was what consciences were for. Guilt was the grease in which the wheels of the authority turned.

He rounded a corner and saw, scratched crudely on the wall opposite, a rough oval with four crude legs and even cruder head and tail.

He smiled. There seemed to be more of them lately. Let heresy fester, let it come to the surface like a boil. Vorbis knew how to wield the lance.

But the second or two of reflection had made him walk past a turning and, instead, he stepped out into the sunshine.

He was momentarily lost, for all his knowledge of the byways of the church. This was one of the walled gardens. Around a fine stand of tall decorative Klatchian corn, bean vines raised red and white blossoms towards the sun; in between the bean rows, melons baked gently on the dusty soil. In the normal way, Vorbis would have noted and approved of this efficient use of space, but in the normal way he wouldn't have encountered a plump young novice, rolling back and forth in the dust with his fingers in his ears.

Vorbis stared down at him. Then he prodded Brutha with his sandal.

“What ails you, my son?”

Brutha opened his eyes.

There weren't many superior members of the hierarchy he could recognize. Even the Cenobiarch was a distant blob in the crowd. But everyone recognized Vorbis the exquisitor. Something about him projected itself on your conscience within a few days of your arrival at the Citadel. The God was merely to be feared in the perfunctory ways of habit, but Vorbis was dreaded.

Brutha fainted.

“How very strange,” said Vorbis.

A hissing noise made him look round.

There was a small tortoise near his foot. As he glared, it tried to back away, and all the time it was staring at him and hissing like a kettle.

He picked it up and examined it carefully, turning it over and over in his hands. Then he looked around the walled garden until he found a spot in full sunshine, and put the reptile down, on its back. After a moment's thought he took a couple of pebbles from one of the vegetable beds and wedged them under the shell so that the creature's movement wouldn't tip it over.

Vorbis believed that no opportunity to acquire esoteric knowledge should ever be lost, and made a mental note to come back again in a few hours to see how it was getting on, if work permitted.

Then he turned his attention to Brutha.

There was a hell for blasphemers. There was a hell for the disputers of rightful authority. There were a number of hells for liars. There was probably a hell for little boys who wished their grandmothers were dead. There were more than enough hells to go around.

This was the definition of eternity; it was the space of time devised by the Great God Om to ensure that everyone got the punishment that was due to them.

The Omnians had a great many hells.

Currently, Brutha was going through all of them.

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