One of the many nice things about writing is that I can do it even when I’m sick, for the most part.
This is good because I’m pretty darn sick right now and may have to suck it up and go to a doctor if I don’t improve soon. Very annoying.
Still, yesterday saw a lot of words hit the screen, and today has been even more productive on that front!
It’s all very rough and raw, as always, though I’m even more aware of that than normal today after a light conversation with a friend about the rules of writing. I break so many of them on a casual basis it’s ridiculous, but that’s what edits and clean up are for – choosing rules which suit, ignoring those that don’t.
So for those of you able to find any enjoyment in my very rough ideas, ‘Fickle’ continues!
‘Fickle’ Part 5
Now, I feel I should go on record as saying that ‘being alone’ is no bad thing. In fact, in some situations, it certainly beats being near people.
But, I do also have to concede that having someone else entrenched in your life can add some variety, and help stave off this seasons selection of mental disorders from talking to yourself all day.
The morning after I brought Gemma to my lair, things were awkward. It didn’t help that the day started with screaming. Again.
Still, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the previous day and turned out to simply come from Gemma waking up and realizing the entire day before had, in fact, been real and that I was not a figment of her imagination.
I think what got to her most wasn’t even that she’d been tied up on a beach as a gift to a dragon, but that I had changed shape multiple times. It seems to be something people struggle with, and I have since learned to generally stick to one consistent man-like form when I’m at home, just for her sake. Her screaming is very acute.
After she collected herself, a breakfast of various fruits I enjoy and some tea certainly helped us both to cope with the day better, and I enacted what I consider to be one of my most inspired plans ever.
I made her a bath.
Now, some people she’s gotten close to and talked about this with are under the impression I was trying to woo her or something. I would like to remind the world at large that I am a malleable deity birthed from the consciousness of life itself, and I don’t have the parts for all that nonsense unless I really concentrate (not least of which because people can’t kick you in balls you don’t have).
I’m practical and don’t like people, least of all the rank scent of a human being who hasn’t washed for some time. The fact I knew she would enjoy it was really just a convenient secondary factor.
Still, I was damn proud of the rock basin I carved out and the little figures I scratched into the rock, and how stable it was when I carved under two-thirds of it so a lit fire could warm the water up.
I mean true, I could have just conjured the water and then heated it myself as a dragon, but even my reclusive ass knows women like to be left alone in the bathroom unless you are very specifically invited.
So I filled the damn thing, lit a fire underneath that should heat things and keep them toasty for about an hour and left a few natural items laying about in the vague hope she’d come out smelling of citrus and coconuts, rather than blood and sweat.
She still had the audacity to cry when she saw it.
Still, she did smell a lot more fragrant afterward, and my retention of scales on my arms and my hooves didn’t seem to be bothering her so much, so I consider it one of my greatest successes. And she turned out to be quite pretty, under all the dirt.
I mean, she’d never have won any of the old beauty awards from back before the Fall, or strutted that weird walk on a catwalk to show off a pillowcase dress in the name of fashion, but to me, that’s a good thing.
Gemma has a more rounded and homely face, with a riot of freckles over her nose, that make her seem far more real. And if her looks weren’t enough to convince me of that, her bloody voice and perception do the job even better.
I would soon come to both resent having someone so smart in my company all the time, and enjoy it for the challenge of maintaining my image in spite of her suspicions. Besides, she’s only clever in trying to make me fit the mold she thinks I belong in. I never said her perception was right. I never claimed to be nice.
Perhaps the best examples of this can be seen in the events that have led to me hiding indoors from the accusation I fixed the whole world. That entire viewpoint is entirely her fault, and even sat here recounting matters, I can feel her smirking out there somewhere, the little harlot. She’s become far too fond of me for my own good.
And that began about three days after I brought her home…
“But you can’t be an atheist! You are a god!”
That perplexed shout, just over my left shoulder on a Thursday morning, was as familiar to me as my own left hand.
I hadn’t even had my first cup of tea yet so I wasn’t in the best of moods, especially for debating grand philosophy. Instead, I just grumbled my way through yet another meeting with an over-enthusiastic acolyte of the cult I never wanted, while he stood there bleeding from his impossible climb up the mountain face to even find me.
“I didn’t say I was an atheist,” I sighed. Mud from the Blood River decorated the smock of my unwelcome guest, meaning I’d have to mop the lair after I finally got rid of him before the dripping mess hardened like clay in a furnace.
His skin tone and accent indicated he was from the south-west of the planet, while scars and marks across his body showed he’d had a hard time of it since the collapse. Still, any pain he was in from just the act of living seemed minor compared to how upset he was that I dared not to meet his expectations.
“You can’t just not believe in divine intervention and higher beings!” he growled, clenching his fists at his sides. “You are one, and you must help!”
“First, I must do nothing. You don’t owe me a thing, nor I you. Second of all, no one gets to tell me my thoughts except me.”
I watched his face fall. This was far from the first time I had been through this conversation with someone, and I forced myself to remember that for all this was very rote for me by now, for him, it was the first time having this discussion, and its attached revelations. Anger and consternation faded to confused sadness, making an already grubby face still more unpleasant, and guilt tripping me into elaborating.
“Look, I’m not saying I won’t listen to your wish, but there are some preconceptions you need to lose first, alright?”
I sat back and picked up my mug. The tea within had, during my discussions thus far with the morning visitor, gone completely cold. I scowled intently at it until it remembered itself, and returned to a pleasant temperature for sipping before I continued to talk. “You remember life before the world shattered?”
“I… yes. Yes, vaguely.”
“Did you believe in violence to solve your problems back then?” In the background, I could see Gemma listening in to the conversation intently. There was no way she could understand the visitor, but she could hear my half of the conversation and I could practically see her extrapolating what she was missing as the talk went on. She looked contemplative, which I have since learned to be very wary of.
“What?” asked my guest, entirely wrong-footed. “Of course not! We were a peaceful people before we had no choice!”
“Leaving aside the obvious issues with that statement…” I said, trying to keep a wry smile off my face, “…violence is an inherent part of life, is it not? Animals kill each other, plants kill each other, people kill each other. The reasoning really doesn’t matter, it can’t be denied violence is real. And yet you didn’t believe in it, despite how real it is, was, and always will be. If you can manage that, I think I can manage not putting any stock in gods, religion or miracles.”
“But that’s totally different! That’s a moral standpoint, not a factor of reality…”
“What makes you think the two are different? Even without that, what makes you think I didn’t mean morally when I told you I don’t believe in godly works?”
He looked confused. Gemma looked interested. I just felt fed up and rolled my eyes at them both. “Look, let’s just call me agnostic and move on. Higher powers can be as real as they wish, but I am certainly uncertain about the nature of the things we can charitably call my ‘parents’.”
“I don’t understand,” the man wailed. “I traveled so far for your help… they said you could grant any wish, but…”
“Most wishes,” I clarified. “I can do most wishes. I can’t do true love, but normal love is easy. I also can’t do universe scale events or transmutation. Well, I can do transmutation, but I like this planet as a planet, not a star, so I just don’t do transmutation.” Both members of the human race in my lair looked baffled, and it was hardly the time for a science lesson, so I just waved my off hand vaguely and caved in. “What’s your wish, kiddo? Let’s just start there.”
A challenge would have been nice, or just an unusual request. Starting a story about saving the world really ought to begin with some grand and impossible seeming quest, based on the writings of all those of who have come before me… but life doesn’t work that way, and no matter how much technology and science advances or retreats, peoples basic needs and instincts rarely alter that much.
I sat and listened as the acolyte wound out a very common story of the woes his clan, tribe, village, whatever, and I sipped my tea to stop myself from looking like I’d heard a hundred stories exactly like it. Just because this was merely ‘Thursday’ to me, didn’t change that it was a big deal for him and I did try to respect that.
In all honesty, there were elements to his sob story I found interesting. He was from the Cartagena region of Columbia, if my grasp of geography and how it had changed were correct. The area was already interesting thanks to all the old history attached to it. Heck, the place is third-generation named after Carthage by way of the Spanish language and some of the pictures in old encyclopedias of the coral reefs were truly stunning.
Ultimately, the problem was those very reefs. Back when the God of Light and God of Dark were in the middle of their epic struggle, one of the many places devastated by their wrath was the Americas. I already said having neurotic gods isn’t good for people, but the contention along the Mexico/US Border and the chaos of religions and cults stretching throughout history in the region made it a hotbed of power when my ‘parents’ rolled through.
People living around there now think everything from Belize to Panama is simply sitting at the bottom of the ocean, but that’s not the case at all. The rock that formed that thin strip of land is just gone. Torn up, flung around, smashed, scattered… Mexico is half buried by desert now, not from the climate, but just from how much powdered land was dropped on it. The old land surfaces for the southern half of the area are miles under the new ground level.
With the land-bridge removed, not only had north and south America parted ways, but without the rock under the water keeping the two major oceans of the world separated, the ocean currents humanity had known for so long were gone too. Pacific and Atlantic had a nice crossing zone now, and things like the Gulf Stream were just gone.
There are a lot of books in my collection about humanities concerns, and lack thereof, over climate change and global warming before everything went to hell in a hand-basket. Not even the worst projections had accounted for such a catastrophic collapse of the ocean systems though. I felt morose as my guest described the vast hunks of dead coral reef choking up his port town. I didn’t care about the damage down to the town, truth be told, but knowing that reefs which had taken centuries to form were still washing up as the new ocean norms generated immense storms was a loss of beauty I mourned. Corals are one of my favorite things to paint, after all, and even without the storms, the colder currents now washing over Cartagena would be killing anything that was still around anyway.
“So, we can no longer take our fleet out to fish for those few fish left and we are starving. Please Lord, you must clear the rocks for us, and drop them on those hateful men of Barranquilla, who left us to die!”
I blinked as the acolyte came to the end of his speech, especially as I had clearly missed some of it in my own reverie. “Sorry, tell me again what the people up the coast did wrong?”
“Surely it was they who poisoned our river after the rocks blocked the port so we would have no food! They have shared none of theirs and turn away our trade caravans. They are to blame!”
“You don’t think, maybe, the problem is any waste being dumped in the river?” I asked, certain I already knew the answer. The true answer, anyway.
“What is he asking about?” Gemma asked, cutting in now she couldn’t just guess what had been said.
“Our friend here thinks his neighbors up the coast poisoned the river his group live near,” I explained. “The port is blocked with old reef rocks that have washed up, and their fresh water isn’t safe anymore, from the sounds of things.”
“It is the fault of the wicked Barranquilla! They do not believe in you, and still follow their wasteful ‘carnival’ while we suffer!”
“…I like them already,” I grinned, turning back to the matter at hand. “Look, if I agree to come and clear the port and take a look at the river, will you leave me alone?”
“We will be ever in your debt, mighty one,” he said, doing the annoying hand gesture and bow I had come to expect from my dear cults.
“Fine. I’m having breakfast first though. Do me a favor and go away. And don’t come back.”
“Thank you, oh great Fickle!”
That, of course, was the last straw for me, especially on an empty stomach. I grit my teeth long enough to escort the man to the entrance of my lair, a nice long sweep of rock overlooking the Blood River below.
“…sure. By the time you get home, your wish will have been granted. If you follow the river into the mists, you will return from whence you came,” I said, letting my vernacular stray into expected territory for once.
“You are truly a divine being, sir. Thank you. My tribe will sing your praises for a thousand years for this!”
“I bloody hope not, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place. No gods, remember? We’re all better off without them.”
“If that were true, then why would you help any of us?” he said, smiling as if the question was rhetorical. I scowled.
“One of these days, one of you will think to ask that before retaining my services.”
I saw Gemma suddenly frown in the background. I held her gaze as I answered my unwanted guest. “Why help you? Because I’m evil. Enjoy your trip.”
I set my hand gently on his back, between his shoulder blades… and pushed.
He screamed the whole way down until the river swallowed him with a dull, thick ‘plop’.
“Was that really necessary?”
While I may have been expecting the lecture, considering the expression Gemma had when I defenestrated our guest from my lair, I certainly wasn’t in the mood for one. I was much more concerned with a fresh cup of tea, and, even more importantly, acquiring some bacon.
Humanity might have won in the sentience stakes, but the adage about pig superpowers turning veggies into bacon is a universal truth.
“Yes. I’m hungry and he’ll drift down to the mists before the sharks get him. So long as ol’ Bertha doesn’t get her suckers on him.”
“He just wants to be able to feed his people… you didn’t have to be such a colossal jerk to him.”
Gemma followed me back into the kitchen like a lost puppy… but a complainy, moral high ground puppy.
I tried giving her the ‘shut up’ look, but one should never enter into a facial-expressions argument with someone who has more years of practice than you. I looked away first, and took out my annoyance on the crockery while I tried to justify myself – an act I had never had to do to anyone but myself before.
“Let me ask you this. What makes you think I’m a nice god? Where, exactly, is that written down?”
“Of course you’re a good god. You grant wishes.” She said it in a tone that suggested there could be no possible other point of view as if she had just declared that the sky was blue.
“Back before everything broke, you people used to write about imaginary beings who granted wishes. Most of the stories ended badly.” ‘You people’, I thought to myself, now there are two words that have started wars before.
Thankfully, Gemma didn’t seem to notice and just looked curious. Another pang of sadness made its way into my chest, but this time it wasn’t for the loss of a beautiful reef. For the first time, I truly thought about the fact that most of the people wandering the world today would have been mere children when the world first went to war with its beliefs, and thus… never had the chance to read all the stories I had salvaged.
“I’ll have to find you the story of Aladdin to read or something. Actually, Aladdin is a bad choice. But look, wishes tend to backfire. You people have always known that, and that nice little creatures who give you something for free are just going to charge you a price you weren’t willing to pay, without you ever realizing. Genies, fairies, luck gods, none of these are nice. I’m not nice.”
“…you were nice to me.” She passed me the milk for my tea as she said it, forcing me to look at her. I snorted, and took the jug, topping off both our cups.
“I have simply been practical with you. I accidentally washed away your village, so the least I could do was clothe you. And you needed a bath, so I made one. I don’t like my house smelling like death.”
“Then why haven’t you kicked me out yet?” she asked with her infuriatingly perceptive tone. I was far from used to it back then, but even still I knew what she was driving at. I stuck to my guns.
“Because you haven’t made your wish. I told you I would give you one, so I’m kind of obligated until you make a decision. Have you thought about it, incidentally?”
“…I’m still thinking.”
“Suuure you are. Look, I’m hungry, can we leave this until after bacon?”
“Only if you make me some too.”
I grumbled a come back under my breath, but we did both finally sit down to a proper breakfast.
“I’m coming with you.”
After breakfast, I had assumed she’d wash up while I went and shifted forms ready to go do my ‘good deed’ for the day. I cooked, after all, so it was her turn to clean. Actually, she cleaned even when I didn’t expect her too, and to this day I’m still trying to figure out where she gets the incense and feather dusters from. I know I didn’t wish them up or bring them home…
Instead, she blindsided me with her demand to join me in my work after I put my plate in the sink.
“To fix Cartagena. I’m coming too.”
“No you aren’t, and I’m not fixing anything. Just moving some rocks around.”
“I’ve never seen that part of the world, so I want to go too.”
“…is that your wish?” Oh, how simple life would be if she had just made that her wish…
“No, but you’re taking me anyway. I want to make sure you don’t drop the rocks on Barranquilla.”
I would like to note, I had no intention of dropping the rocks on anyone. I had intended to just use an upswell to do all the work for me.
“I never told the idiot I would harm Barranquilla for him, so you don’t need to worry about it.”
“Well, then there’s even less of an issue to stop me from going. I’ll wash up the plates when we get back.”
I have since learned there is no point arguing with Gemma when she’s in that kind of mood. I mean, you can argue, but you will end up wasting your breath. Even starting to shift forms in front of her so she could see my skin bubbling and moving didn’t manage to put her off, and by this point, I know far better than to try.
It all ended that day with me carrying her on my back as I winged my way into the mists, somehow resisting the urge to just tip her into the sea. Maybe I should have.
“Why? Why do you want to see Cartagena?” I finally asked once the Caribbean sea could be seen rolling away beneath us. It should have been an azure blue, but the changes in the oceans meant water the world over tended to look a murky greenish brown whenever one was somewhere near land.
“I want to see you helping people.” I could only just hear her voice over the wind passing over my wings, made all the worse for how much lower than normal I was coasting just to make sure she could even breathe.
“Helping. Sure. I’m more concerned with the poor destroyed reefs if you must know,” I grumbled back at her.
“Sure. I like corals. They’re very colorful and relaxing to paint.”
Which is true. I have tons of paintings in my lair of all different species of coral, some taken from photos, others from observations in the few areas of the world they still grow. My favorites have always been the weird ones, like brain corals, where there’s texture to paint as well as color and shape. A perfectly sane hobby, I feel, in a very crazy world.
“So that’s what those canvases were in your cave…”
“Lair,” I corrected, automatically.
“Lair, right. Most dragons are supposed to hoard gold, you know. Not pictures.”
“Most dragons are supposed to eat noisy wenches, too.” I felt her laugh as I said it, her thighs clenching just a little on my back while the wind stole her voice. She has a nice laugh but doesn’t use it often. I think that’s a shame, as it certainly beats her usual scathing sarcasm.
“Touche. Is that it?” she asked, leaning down to point in line with my eye level. I refocused my eyes so I could make out the smudge on the horizon in greater clarity, and dipped my head in a nod.
“Yes. Oh, what a mess… it used to be so beautiful here…”
It certainly wasn’t beautiful anymore.
I flew over the coastline a couple of times once we orientated ourselves, fighting the urge to shed even a single tear for the horrific destruction while Gemma could see me. But it was painful to look at.
The water was a horribly unhealthy color both inland and for a good swathe out into the sea. In part, the runoff I was seeing was just sediments and sands blasted out from inland by river floods and storm damage, but a fair portion of it was also human pollution from destroyed buildings, machines, and factories. Oil slicked the top of the water in places and I could smell decay even at our height as we flew over.
In places where people no longer called the coast home, the water was sometimes clearer and more normal, but the devastation under the waves was no better. Great gouge lines ran alongside the coast of Columbia, the trenches the leftover scars from the great fight here that had sundered the land and dug all the way into the tectonic plate the area sat on.
As someone with some knowledge of what it had all looked like before the cataclysm, I knew it was hurting me more than Gemma, but even she went silent while we took in the carnage.
When I landed, I couldn’t help but tell her about what the area had once looked like, especially when we walked toward the docks at Cartagena and I could point out the dead species of coral on the rocks I needed to move.
The work took the better part of the afternoon as I carried the colossal rocks far enough out to sea they shouldn’t cause the same problem again, and I felt too tired to just instantly go home once the work was done, so I carried Gemma down coast to a secluded hillside to observe the ocean, with a promise to fix the river the following day.
Dragon breath set our little campfire and my wing made a makeshift tent over her until the stars came out and I ended up telling her all about Cartagena’s history and geography over a dinner of local deer.
“So, why not fix it?” she finally asked, when I fell silent.
“Sorry? I did.”
“Not the port rocks, you dummy. The reefs.”
“I can’t just reinstate an entire coastline of coral, Gemma.”
“Why not? You said you can grant just about any wish, so you must be strong enough to.”
I rolled my eyes. The lack of education among humanities remnants could be a real pain in the butt at times, and I just wasn’t in the mood to explain the full ecosystem network a coral reef needs, especially not when I was already tired. Instead, I tried to keep it simple.
“Because there used to be a land bridge further along the coast that kept the Pacific and Atlantic oceans apart. Without it, the waters around here aren’t right anymore. The corals would just die.”
“So, fix the land bridge.”
“Fix the land bridge. Put it back how it used to be. Then put the corals back.”
I stared at her dumbfounded. She wiped a trail of venison juice from her lips and stared back at me as if she had suggested something as simple as building a mud hut. I almost laughed at how simple she made things sound.
“First of all, do you have any idea how much rock you expect me to move? And where am I supposed to find it? And do you have even the slightest inkling how long that will take?”
“Well, what else were you planning to do with your time?” she shrugged.
“Paint what? The corals you are letting go extinct?”
“…shut up. Besides. I can’t just create life. That has to happen on its own. I can’t magic a creature into existence.”
Which is true, incidentally. Spontaneous creation of a living thing just isn’t an ability I’ve ever possessed. I can make things fertile, I can speed or slow growth, but actually just creating a life out of nothing? Impossible.
“Double the reason to fix things then,” Gemma went on, oblivious to my incredulity. “Put the land bridge back, clean up the ocean, lay down fresh rock bed and bring in some surviving corals to start repopulating. It’ll take time, sure, but better than there eventually being nothing left here at all, right?”
“Is this your wish?” I sighed, hoping against hope she’d just say yes.
“No. It’s yours. You complain about people coming to your place to demand things of you… well, why not take a month off? They can’t annoy you if you aren’t home, and you can do something for yourself. Sounds sensible to me.”
I will never admit it to her face, but she changed my world with that sentence. I don’t know why, but I had never once thought of moving from my island. Of just… not being there, moving house. Krakatau is where I was born, and I… well, I feel like it’s where I’m just supposed to be.
But people… well, I guess it’s another thing about humanity I actually like. No matter how attached to a place a person gets, they always have that knowledge in the back of their heads that they could just leave. Leave, and go anywhere. An entire planet of complicated eco-systems and the humans of history have always just gone wherever they wanted, settled wherever they wanted, moved on whenever they wanted.
It had never occurred to me I had that choice too.
“Sounds like a ton of work.” I finally grumbled, after my brain stopped spinning.
“Well, I guess you better get started then. Where did you say all the rock ended up?” In the moonlight, with a cheeky smile on her face, Gemma looked more devilish than I think I ever had. But she really does have a lovely smile and might have noticed I had one too if it weren’t for my snout. I grumbled for about another hour until she fell asleep, but she had made a good point, and I really do like corals.
So that was how I ended up taking my first vacation and putting the oceans back together. And I swear to you, I only did it for myself.