By Vasilis Afxentiou
Up top, Charlie's eye seemed glued to the joint stuck between his fingers. He hesitated, undecided.
Meanwhile, down below, Satan was grinding his teeth. He strutted back and forth in his gloomy fissure, the deepmost part of His blaze-lit, sulphur-reeking sovereignty. His rust-chaffed face, nostrils flaring, glared up and sneered, snorting and chuffing and casting bandeaux of spume.
He raised His yellow-brown hands imploringly. "I crave for the Inquisition, the Children's Crusades, the sprightful witch hunts, and those two sublime mushrooming obfuscations. Ah, those were the days, My lackeys."
Lately He had been having these pricks of elation, pangs of notorious jubilance. He spied on Charlie and other mortals above--mingled in crowds, snooped and eavesdropped to locate the source of these novel affections--but he soon wearied of the humans' pointless prattle and skeptical attitudes towards Evil. Instead of the old-fashioned rash rage and fury, He found them poring over Freud and Hawking.
Had He not racked and abused them sufficiently over the eons? All that spleen and spite gone to waste. He expected from them the vilest, blindest passions and malevolence. Instead...He got winked at.
"Inactivity is what's doing it."
"But idle hands are the Devil's workshop," a red-eyed demon puffed back.
"See!" He hissed. "Even the laws of darkness are being confounded!"
Inactivity was moderating His eternal animosity down to mere resentment, downsizing His hostility to the scruffy level of His gamy clientele.
"Business is going to the dogs," He snarled, and the gargoyles rattled nigh His clacking hoofs.
All the slithering things hissed and sputtered, defecated and slobbered down in the blistering guts of the earth.
"Isn't that the way it's supposed to be?" a scaly imp fumed.
The underworld fell silent. Satan swelled up and let fly a jet of hot gore on the apprentice demon.
"We never use the word 'ought' down here."
Still vexed, Satan came topside once again to meddle and pry.
He found himself smack-dab in a mid-August scorcher. Crickets were popping like corn in the heat, bursting in the thistles and pines and toppling to the ground without knowing what hit them. Lizards scurried for cover at the Evil One's approach. A ruby dragonfly flittered and dipped almost directly into His path, then vaulted out of view. Clouds of metallic blue butterflies dispersed from their waxy gold perches and rippled over his head.
He emerged from the gates of Hell, a sandy stretch favored by skinny-dippers on the Aegean island called Esperanza. On both sides the beach stretched level and regular for more than a kilometer. Then it wormed inland, finally rising in a smooth curve to meet the foot of the isle's single distant mountain, a precipice hanging like some broad highway above the sea.
He pulled his horns in. Sucked up his tail. Shucked off His scales. Then He metamorphosed into the angel He once was. His lips formed a big pout. "God it's hot," He said, His new voice almost as raspy as a man's.
"You called Me?" a tumult thundered from the sky.
The Old Man stood like an ancient Atlas on billowy white clouds.
"O Lord!" Satan fidgeted with his nakedness. "Excuse. Just a figure of speech."
"Didn't we agree for You to rule from below and I from above?"
Got to humour Him--got a hell of a temper, Satan thought.
"Are You trying to make the surface Your domain as well?" the Old Mighty roared, and a sirocco ruffled Satan's delicate red curls.
The wind blew harder, the clouds tumbled like bowling balls. God looked down at the sprawled naked bodies, mere mites on a Titan's golden scimitar, He thought, examining the crescent of shoreline that seemed to become lost in a sea of azure blood. He recalled how immaculate the blood of Mother Gaia had been. How all shores had once resembled this one. It was sad to see the same seas so despoiled. Oil spills. Radioactive canisters swaying like cobra heads beneath the crushing depths, waiting to ejaculate their poison into living things. The life He had created.
In the beginning Earth had been a crunchy fresh apple, beads of dew still clinging to it. Mankind was tucked safely away in His heart of hearts. Even the touch of the musk rose on His toes had been a consolation to Him back then, made Him sigh with pleasure, compassion and grace.
He recalled how the animals, trees, shrubs, birds and butterflies of every hue, the kelp and starfish, had rushed out of Him exactly as He imagined them. The tiny and the huge together. Then lastly, man, the crown jewel. He entered their lairs and grottos and dreams and saw Himself in them.
And it had come to this.
Had entropy worn Him down?
He felt a great void open up inside him. Had it perhaps all been a Divine mistake?
"Might I have not passed on my own boredom to my creatures?"
"You say something, Lord?"
A hideous ripping noise made Satan start. He screamed, froze, then thawed down to a jellyfish and oozed back up into his angel shape. "Why, oh, why did I ever take this job?"
A mistake, a moment of weakness, frivolity, God continued to ponder to Himself, which the mortals have inherited. The forbidden fruit of knowledge became their mantel of wisdom.
The snare of the deity, God thought on reflection, had been His utter lack of a wholesome awareness of Evil. He feared that, thanks to his His own ignorance, goodness's child had been a child of His loneliness, not of His Love or His Law, but the product of a moment's yielding to His yen for experimentation, curiosity and the simple restlessness of His youth.
Seven billion years, not seven days (how mortals simplified His grandeur to their own measures!) of maelstroming, taming and smithing a universe for the coming of life: strange, nebulous, breathtaking. All to prepare it for His new companions. Another five to hone the Earth to the exact proportions of humankind's needs.
He had begun as if playing a game. But Creation had welled up of its own, overspilling itself, demanding independence, like silver-white elvers leaping from a broken water bag. Cunning eyes, wily grins, pesky faces bespoke tenacity and aptness and survival. It was less a course of action than happenstance.
Back then He had been overwhelmed by it.
"Oh, so long ago."
"Toad turds to the three hundred and fifty days of sunshine. It's not September even."
"Who said that!"
"Don't, Lord," Satan said, thinking that modesty can be overdone. Then he turned to the human. "Button up, Charlie."
There was an odd light in God's eyes, a sign that made Satan sorry He'd spoken at all.
"That's what the sign said. Over the airport terminal six years ago when I set foot here--'Three hundred and fifty days of sunshine.' It's just their lousy luck"--Charlie glanced at the Other and gestured toward the sprawled tourists, "to be here the fifteen days it's going to douse."
"Six years, Charlie?"
"Weather was different then, a paradise." The youth's face suddenly became well-defined. A shaft of sunlight passed through a rift in the clouds and shone on it. He had round brown eyes, light-brown hair and a slight growth of beard. He might have been a Kentucky farmboy. "Who were You talking to up there?"
"Hear that, Lord?" Satan said. "Things were different." Then to Charlie, "To God. I was talking to God. In fact, I may have just saved your ass from eternity."
"Strong shit, ain't it?" Charlie sucked on his roach until Satan could see only the whites of his eyes.
"Is that mortal smoking hashish, Lucifer?"
The heavens boiled with white-grey fury. The clouds radiated red flashes against the silver and blue of the sky. The thick plumes puckered squarely over Charlie's stoned head. Satan almost peed in his pants.
He could taste the hot, moist air of a killer storm brewing. No backing out now, He thought. He hadn't come up here to save souls. New blood was what he wanted, and it was pooled in Charlie's veins and genome. Mine be humanity, He prayed. Revive remorse for the slumming life, arouse compunction about avarice, coveting and civil strife; contrition for good ol' false pride, bipartisan morass; and just sit back and make room for the guilt-beset, shame-ridden hoards.... If Charlie could only keep his flappers fused.
He pulled himself together. For Hell's sake.
He had come to realize it wasn't that mortals didn't pay Him no never mind. They merely dreaded more the evil in themselves and what it can do to them than what He could dish out in the next life. They feared more for the here and now than for the great beyond. Today they wanted community, a New Order, brotherhood, prophylactics, justice for Rwanda. And it all started with the sprouting of those hippies and then, more recently, when that Tipler fellah was tipped with the inside dope--straight from Up There.
He needed old-fashioned, unequivocal down-home Gospel sinning. Sin-anxious mortals, that's what he wanted. None of this doubt-eradicating, Cosmos-probing, high-tech-for-high-peace stuff.
"Our mysteries are Ours," He grunted.
No yuppie yo-yos shouting, 'Make business not war,' or, Greenpeace greenbutts yodeling, 'Be true to blue.' He wanted the greenback to read In Arms We Trust and, by gosh, the Wall put back up. "He's been getting all the kudos," He griped under His breath, "and me all the barbs."
His tawny cheeks and almond eyes, half-hidden by gorgeous lashes, turned toward God. "Lord, You know mortals smoke hashish. Shoot up horse--begging Your pardon--heroin. Sniff coke and crack, swallow uppers and downers, and all those pretty-coloured pills in between. "Omniscient that You are, You are aware that they drink or dope themselves to death, or smoke to waste, or eat themselves to the grave. Men mortals whore and women mortals adulterate. Men fornicate with men and women with each other and--You must know--today sex before wedlock is free and as common as promiscuous sex in the institution of marriage."
The clouds hovered, undecided, over Charlie's stoned skull. This time he hardly noticed. But Satan felt a burst of anger for His eternal unease. He shut His eyes tight, then opened them again.
"Lord, jails are so full they're spilling their trash back into the streets. Policemen, lawyers, politicians, doctors, even" he hesitated, "people of the cloth are turning their attention elsewhere...."
"What are You getting at?" God roared, the smoldering joint still locked between comatose Charlie's fingers.
"Your churches are half-filled on Sundays. My churches--bars and casinos and dives--are packed every day and are worse than the jails at night. To every one of Your temples there is a thousand of Mine, Lord.
"What am I getting at?" Satan glanced at Charlie and behind His back crossed His long, carefully manicured fingers. "I should be getting more than I bargained for, Lord. I mean there's no distinction between down there and up here any more. It should of been like too much for one of Me to handle. But, Lord, it ain't!
"Something somewhere along the line is going wrong. People aren't trespassing, aren't violating the Law, whether out of simple spite or ignorance or just plain disregard for guilt. Remorse they do know, but even that they're rationalizing. Sin is just one more abstract concept added to the long list of paradoxes We've been ladling out to them through the millennia. Irrelevant to the educated, is what I'm getting at. And the world is more exposed to sophistication today than ever before. Or maybe," He tossed the bait, "just maybe now, Somebody is not doing Their share of the work."
"Are You accusing Me of backsliding?"
A lethal violet light sprayed static electricity into the surrounding air. Sand devils hopped and danced, whirling over the stupefied naked bodies. Then wind rushed by, the advance guard of something more treacherous. Out at the horizon a monstrous tidal swell rose to the height of an Alp. The wind drove itself like spikes into Satan's back, knocking the breath out of Him. Cloud and sea massed into one grim platinum entity. Charlie threw back his head, his jaw agape, and whined like a stricken dog.
He's had it, Satan thought. There's no stopping Him now. His ego is the biggest, and He's gonna blow it, along with poor stoned Charlie. I got to buy time or I'll lose him: The one and only soul left who's in true conflict between Good and Evil, not yet lost to perfunctory worship or gross indifference. My last chance to revamp afresh My realm.
"Lord," whispered Satan, "this mortal is a prize unlike any other."
"What are You talking about? He's getting high like all the rest, isn't he? What's so special about Charles Emmanuel Woodsmith? I am going to strike them all down."
"I don't care about the rest. They aren't headed for down below anyway."
"They are certainly not destined for Paradise."
"But Charlie, Lord, just may be."
Satan scooped up some sand and dumped it on His nakedness. "I've been trying to tell You all along. There're more people dying today than ever before, yet the souls that come my way are fewer and fewer. And I'd wager the same thing's happening in Paradise."
"Well, the last century has certainly been a lean one. I assumed they were ending up with You. There must be millions unaccounted for...."
"Billions! Earthquakes and floods in Asia and the Americas, famines and epidemics in Africa, skirmishes and major wars everywhere..."
"Nope. I checked."
"Then, where?" God asked, and a southerly wind blew.
"Since the end of the second Great War, hitting a peak back in the sixties and leveling off in the early seventies, some force has been tampering with good old-fashioned clear-cut Good and Evil, Lord."
"But the Rules were set down long before that."
"You know that, and I know it. But is it possible those black holes, those 'event horizons' they recently discovered, not to mention that malarkey about flower power, could have sucked them up?"
Satan darted a glance at the wavering Charlie. "What happens if they stop crediting Us for the moral ultimates, instead deify Jung, the media, Sagan, The Physics of Immortality? How can faith and fear abide in the face of all that enlightenment, this flash flood of knowledge and initiation into everything that once were Our secrets alone? Why don't they burn scientists and journalists any more?"
"I AM THAT I AM!"
The sea rose up and rushed in great heaves. The earth trembled and jiggled like a flabby midsection. The clouds tumbled together in gigantic flashing orbs, eclipsing the sun and filling the sky from one horizon to the other.
"It's awful!" Charlie cried.
Hold on, babe, Satan silently urged. Just a little longer. Don't turn into a pillar of salt on me.
He turned toward God again, "Ok, ok. But what if?"
"You already know the answer."
God nodded, and the ground beneath the human throbbed.
"Oh, poor Kid. Not the Wood again."
"You would prefer Nemesis, the Great Deluge or Sodom and Gomorra? Religion is the child of faith. No faith, no religion. No religion...and man is next. Are You ready for a totally unfettered humanity?"
"Are We?" And Lucifer let out a long moan.
"So, Charlie is the last believer."
"The only honest believer left, my sources tell me. But he's doing his damnedest to go bad. You witnessed it yourself." Satan pulled himself together. "Let him battle it out on his own, Lord, not like the Other One. Let's see who wins the tug-o-war over this final one human, fair and square like. I even take back what I said about Somebody not doing Their fair share."
"He's a teacher, isn't he, some kind of language teacher? Has a way with children? Unpretentious chap, a bit of an oddball. Doesn't quite fit in with the others?"
"That's him. So, we got a deal?"
"Shake on it?"
God eyeballed Satan sternly.
But the heavens smiled. The clouds made themselves scarce. The afternoon sun reigned again over the beach covered with bronze bodies. Charlie stopped holding onto the sand to brace himself against another quake. He squinted up at the sun and realized that it must have all been a hallucination. He looked around. The fiery-haired, violet-eyed angel waved to him from a cave entrance beneath the overhanging precipice, blew a kiss and flashed him the victory sign. Charlie winced at the bounce of the angel's haunches, rubbed his stinging eyes and saw that he was waving at empty space.
"Never again," he said, and passed out.
He dreamed that he was playing five-card stud with two sleazy-looking dudes, one of whom wore a robe of gaudy silk. The other gazed back at him with an imperious Mr. Spock look. The hand that had been dealt him was as rotten as a hand can get. He felt cheated, a no-win situation, his birthright gone, his natural joy and peace left naked to his enemies.
(Vasilis Afxentiou has worked as an engineer, technical specifications writer and, for the past fourteen years, English as a Second Language teacher. His writing has appeared in Greek Accent, National Herald (Proini), CrossCurrents, 30-Days, Key Travel News, Greece's Weekly, Athena Magazine, and online in The Domain, Ibn Quirtaiba, Cosmic Visions, ThinkB, Aphelion, Dark Planet, Basket Case BORNmagazine, Aspiring Writer, ThinkB, Appalachians, Newwords, and Zine in Time. He has also written a weekend travel column for The Athens Star.)