Malachite, carrying her ailing father on her back, walked towards the city of Amsterdam over the ancient ringway. It had been ten years since she and Father had fled the ruins of their old life over this very road. She couldn’t remember anything about that journey.
“It’s easier to get into Amsterdam than out,” her father quoted the old adage in her ear, brandishing his stick in front of her eyes to underline the wisdom in his words.
The raised highway was blocked-in by ruined, overgrown edifices on both sides, so it was impossible to see where they were going. The old road was surprisingly passable for travelers on foot, but in spite of that few people were using it. Which suited Father, because he said the business of revenge flourished better without advertisement.
Malachite would have liked to speak to the other travelers, to get a feel for the city of their destination, but Father wanted speed and silence. She’d promised him she’d get him back to Amsterdam and to help him avenge her mother and her sisters. Malachite shifted Father’s fragile bones around to a more comfortable position on her back.
At the end of a day’s walking, there was seldom any comfort left. But at least she was seeing something of the world.
“We got out back then,” Malachite said, trying to fathom what the ruined castles lining the broken highway had once been used for. Forts, she guessed, to protect and oversee the great road. She had heard people could shoot from that far away those days, even without special divine powers.
“We did,” her father said. His hand clawed into her shoulder in a way that said, I don’t want to talk about it.
And he didn’t need to. Malachite had been ten years old when they’d left, wise enough to understand her mother and her sisters had died and that they had to flee from the god who had broken its promise. A guilty god was deadlier than an angry god.
Still, it felt uncomfortable to be out of the demesnes of Otte en Liet, the powerful gods of Rotterdam, after ten years of safety. She and her father carried small vials of river water for protection, in brittle but intact plastic bottles that had once been her sisters’, but in the end they’d be on their own. It would be just their wits to go up against Aterscha, the god that had betrayed them and caused their family to die.
The destruction of the known world hadn’t stopped Amsterdam being a home to many gods besides Aterscha, gods of all kinds, big and small, friendly and unfriendly. No other city was as god-rich, no other gods worked so hard to keep their promises and keep their many followers happy. No other cities had a god of fashion, a god of good hair and several gods of great shopping. Said Father.
“Are we going to get there before nightfall?” Malachite asked as she looked at the western sky. She didn’t want to be outside city walls at night, prey to the wild godlets that roamed the open countryside.
“It’s a big town, Mal. Bigger than what’s left of Rotterdam. Older and stronger and with more magic.”
Malachite shivered. She didn’t like magic, never had. She worked in the harbor with her strong back and her big hands. If she never had business with any god but friendly Otte it would be fine with her. Except for this: she still burned with anger for the god that had killed her family and forced them to leave their hometown. For revenge, she would follow her father’s crazy plans.
Father picked the off-ramps he wanted to use. They’d have to walk inwards on the spokes of the imaginary wheel that was Amsterdam.
“Otte and Liet gave us specific instructions,” Father said. “We’d better stick to them. Promises go both ways.”
Malachite knew. One of her best friends when she was little hadn’t delivered the pink hair ribbon she’d promised to the god Oopgoot in exchange for curing her sick bunny, and the girl had ended up hairy, pink-eyed and dead by Christmas.
Here the ancient road descended from the elevated highway and segued into a bridge across the river Amstel.
Two steps on the bridge, Malachite halted. “Shouldn’t we pay homage to the river god?”
She walked over to the parapet to offer some spit, but Father pulled her ear to stop her. “No. Feel it. This is a dead river. Some other god killed Amstel a long time ago, and no one’s managed to claim her territory yet.”
Malachite pushed forward through the muffled, dead air on the bridge. So different from the sparkling exhalations over Otte and Liet. “I’ve never heard of a dead god before.”
“She probably reneged on a promise and all her adorers left her,” Father said.
Malachite shrugged. She couldn’t feel pity for a god. With great power came a great sense of entitlement and whimsy.
At the end of the bridge, she slammed her nose against an invisible barrier. “Ow!”
“I should have looked up the bridge god,” Father said. “Sorry.”
“What tribute does it want?” Malachite said, rubbing her nose.
Father flipped through his precious notebook. He could read and write, something Malachite had never taken to. “Here it is. Mstel bridge, a few drops of blood.”
Guess who was going to offer them? Malachite wiped her bleeding nose and flipped a few drops on the crumbling tarmac. Then she offered a few more for Father.
“Mstel Bridge, can we cross?” Father asked loudly.
No answer came.
Father shrugged. “I guess we’re good.” A little gingerly they crossed the spot where Malachite had hit her nose, but nothing happened this time.
Father relaxed and ruffled her hair, which she hated. “See? We can do this.”
Malachite hoisted Father higher and steered down the ramp into the city. Roads went right and left, with straight ahead a crumbling wall of old row houses. The old pavement here was covered with only a few inches of water and lined with skeletal relics of once green trees. Father had told her the inner city had a lot of planking pavement to keep dry, or used boats. No planking here, though, they’d get wet feet.
“Where to?” she asked.
A tall man with a tall black hat sprang from behind the trunk of a water-killed plane tree.
“Hello strangers! I sell a styptic to stop your bleeding, clean cloths, healing spells, vials with ten bridge crossings for the frequent traveler, and for only a little more, the protection of my god Eldestra.”
Malachite looked up at Father. He could use several of these items. But would he?
Father looked around, past the godseller. “What about dry feet?”
The godseller shook his head.
“Thank you, my good man,” Father said. “I will take your styptic and decline the protection of your god for now.”
The tall man wrung his hands. “The styptic, dear sir, only two florins. But if you become a member of Eldestra’s church, for one florin per month, the styptic costs only one florin! Much more cost-effective to join Eldestra’s temple! He offers excellent healing and insurance against small wounds, better breathing near the river and a guaranteed protection against mosquito bites.”
That didn’t sound too bad, but Malachite knew Father would never join the first church that crossed his path.
“I’m not saying a definitive no,” Father said, “I’m new to this city, I must weigh my options.” He held out the two florins for the styptic.
The godseller contorted his long narrow body, hitching out his elbows, waggling his hat, but he could find no new words to convince Father. Finally he parted with the styptic and called after them when they turned away: “Eldestra is not a vengeful god! You can change your mind anytime!”
Father tapped her right shoulder. Malachite turned right. A voice whispered in her left ear: “Pretty girl, I will take your subscription for free. Just nod to accept my token and you needn’t even ask your father for permission.” That must be the god himself, throwing his voice in her ear.
Malachite shook no. She wasn’t a pretty girl by any means, but even if he’d called her a strong and independent young woman, she didn’t want to have anything to do with unknown gods.
“Shoo!” her father called out.
The god’s presence dissipated.
Not far ahead of them, a river glittered under the afternoon sun. When they reached the half-submerged quay, Malachite finally dared look back. The tall man in the top hat was accosting another traveler.
“Are all gods like that here?” she asked Father. “I don’t remember that.”
“Probably they just trouble new arrivals,” Father said. “Gods need worshipers, that’s a well-known fact. I think the Amsterdammers aren’t as god-steady as the folk in Rotterdam, but I would be surprised if we saw any more of these fellows.” He nodded at the river. “Set me down and get your flask of Otte, dear.”
She slid him off her back, steadying him until he found his balance. “But that’s our protection! What are you going to do with it?”
Father pressed his lips together. He’d been like this ever since they left Rotterdam. He’d instructed her in what he wanted her to do, but not why. If they hadn’t shared the goal of vengeance…
“Bend over the parapet, dear, careful. It’s old. Now smell the river, sense it.”
Malachite did as he asked. There was nothing. She just smelled river water, dark and cool. No god fizzled just under the surface, imbuing the stream with meaning and purpose. It was empty.
Father looked around furtively and pulled his hood up further. “I can tell you now, I guess. Not that I don’t trust you, but if a god had taken you, you were better off not knowing.”
She watched with growing unease as he took both their flasks and poured them out into the dead river.
“The river Amstel encircles the town of Amsterdam and flows through all its canals and flooded streets. Otte and Liet hope to take it over.”
He gave the empty flasks to Malachite to string on her leather necklace and hide under her shirt. He grabbed her arm. “Come. We must get to the center of town before the evening curfew.”
Malachite crouched so he could climb back up on her back. They plodded on through the cold, dank, ankle-deep water beside the river. Tall buildings bordered it on all sides, some more or less intact, others just a heap of rubble. People lived in those buildings, judging from the lines of washing and playing children, as well as the midden heaps. Walking dikes had been created from the rubble, and Malachite used them whenever possible. Better than trudging through the water over ancient, slippery cobblestones.
“Isn’t this the city already?” Malachite asked.
Father shook his head. “Amsterdam is like a layered cake. This is just one of the outer layers. We have to get deeper in.”
At the ruins of another bridge, they turned away from the river. Malachite sneaked a last look backwards. The river oozed grey-green like before. Maybe it hadn’t worked. Or maybe it took centuries, who knew with gods?
As she walked through older, yet less flood-ruined streets, more and more people were out and about. Amsterdammers wore god-stamp tattoos on their foreheads, and not temporary ones either. Amsterdam was not like Rotterdam, where religion was more of a private matter. Rotterdammers discerned each other’s gods by subtle hints in clothing and hairstyle, like the braids Malachite wore at her temples for Otte. The elaborate tattoos on the citizens’ foreheads looked like disfigurement to Malachite. Especially since several people sported gnarly scars there, that had been tattooed over in more or less successful ways. Apparently it wasn’t easy to change religion here.
The houses wore skirts of planking, so customers needn’t step in the middle of the road, where a foot or more of dirty water sloshed. Shops sold all kinds of wares, pre-god tins and clothes that would never fade or rot, springy shoes, but also fresh produce and fish.
“Where is Aterscha’s temple? Aren’t we going there?”
“Shh. Don’t mention his name here. He might hear. I don’t want his attention on us just yet.” Father rubbed the old burn scar on his chest, through his shirt and vest. He’d burned off Aterscha’s tattoo after the flood.
In Rotterdam Father’s plan had seemed clear and well-detailed. But now they were here, she realized that she didn’t know half that she should. Father had a detailed plan, but she wasn’t privy to it.
As they wended their way to very center of the city, the fabled Dam plaza, godsellers and temple touts accosted them at every corner. Malachite put her head down and plodded on.
The narrow, crowded street opened out onto a big circular space, surrounded by more or less intact palaces. Malachite gaped. They were so tall, and even the roofs seemed intact, and glass shone in every window. She’d never seen so many old buildings in one place. The plaza was full of people, doves, gesticulating men on wooden crates, musicians, street organs and a buzzing din of many people speaking all at once.
A big hairy face thrust itself between her and IJenkorf Palace. “New in town? You need protection against all these people accosting you. That can’t be pleasant for a genteelly raised young lady like you. Subscribe to Eidsestra, one of the oldest gods in Amsterdam. He knows what women like! He guarantees good manners, cleanliness and prosperity.”
Malachite turned her face away. Genteel. There had been no time or money for genteel. She’d had to work hard to keep herself and Father alive. Maybe Mother had been genteel, although Malachite was a bit fuzzy on the exact meaning of the word.
The face was not to be deterred. “You prefer a female god? How about Allen, she’s the god of women. Pleasure in bed, plenty of men, and good health as well. How about it? Special reduction today, decide quickly, you’ll never get a better deal!”
Malachite put her arms about her head. “Father!” she said.
Father asked to be put off and hobbled up to the trader, leaning on his stick. “We’re together,” he said pleasantly. “Who is the best god or goddess for fathers and daughters? Or in fact, whole families?”
The bearded tout scratched his head. Malachite was sure she saw something moving. He must not subscribe to Eidsestra for cleanliness himself.
“How about Unt, Aterscha or Ictoriahotel? They cater to families.”
That sounded like the truth. Malachite wondered why he didn’t go on plugging his own god.
Father curled his lip. “Those old and worn godlings? Come on, is that the best you can do?”
The bearded seller fell back, confused. Others leapt into the gap.
“Here, Oorburgwal! Asnapolsky! Good health, sharp hearing, luck in games, healthy offspring–”
Malachite clapped her hands over her ears. So many people shouting at her, men and women, brandishing tokens and colorful arrays of god stamps on their hands and faces, amulets in dozens around their necks, ready to tie around the new adorers’ necks.
“Which one of you is the best and cheapest god?” Father asked.
Malachite frowned. He’d said they’d find Aterscha’s temple and destroy it. This, what he was doing now, seemed completely unrelated to that goal.
He made a chopping motion to silence her.
Malachite retreated a step, angry. More he hadn’t told her. What did he think, that she would blab details to their enemy? She crossed her arms.
“Who needs gods?” a soft voice said in her ear.
Malachite turned around to the voice. A friendly, smiling woman with an ugly scar on her forehead smiled at her.
“You look like you did once,” Malachite answered, not caring that she sounded rude.
“My parents dedicated me to the temple of Amrak,” the woman continued, in that soft, smooth voice. “But when I grew up I realized I didn’t need any god. And I’ve prospered. So I decided to help others.” She held up an arm full of blank amulets. “See, this is the sign of godlessness. Buy one and you will be protected against any and all gods.”
Malachite snorted. “And who’s doing the protecting? The god of godlessness?”
The woman shook her head. “We subscribe to no god. We are free of them. That means we have to help each other, because we can’t rely on subscriptions.”
Again the woman sounded truthful, not boasting of her godless powers but just stating its limits. Malachite expected sellers to oversell the qualities of their products. She smiled at the woman. She seemed nice.
“Malachite!” her father rasped out. “Come here. Pay attention, girl.”
Malachite sighed but went. He was her father. She’d promised. She looked back for the woman, but she’d disappeared into the crowd.
“Repeat what you just said,” Father asked a godseller, a giant dark brown man hung with a staggering amount of amulets. His face crawled with competing god stamps, none of them defaced.
“My gods have joined forces and so they can offer you much better terms than single gods,” he started his spiel. “I carry clean drinking water guarantees, your fire starting up at the first try, living through childbirth, a full belly.”
“Don’t believe that full belly nonsense!” a woman screeched. “My daughter’s belly felt always full when we subscribed to Eisteeg, but she almost died because she wasn’t hungry. It was only when we subscribed to Aterscha that she grew healthy again.”
“Aterscha, you say?” Father said, inviting the woman godseller to join in the pitch.
The many-tattooed man threw the woman a dark look from under his turquoise-stamped brow. “Stay out of this, I was here first.”
A small flame shot out from his upheld hand. A nasty singed odor perfumed the air.
The man prostrated himself with a shriek. “Am, my apologies, Am! I meant no disrespect, I really thought I was first.”
The faces looked down at him greedily, then fell when nothing further happened to him.
“No need to boast,” Father said with a honeyed voice. “Certainly not if Am objects to it. I’m new to Amsterdam, and I’m fascinated with all these gods you have. How many gods are there? Which one is a wise choice for a newcomer?
Malachite recognized Father’s tone. It was best to stay silent and wait him out. He used the same voice as when he used to quiz her when she still went to school, tripping her up and making her feel stupid.
Godsellers thrust themselves between her and Father. They shouted, brandished amulets and rubber stamps, praising their god’s benefits, reduced their prices for a subscription several times.
Father played them masterfully. He’d shush the crowd, ask one godseller to elaborate, make the man or woman think he was going to get a subscription and then said he needed some time to think.
Malachite glanced at the clock on top of one the palaces. It seemed to be working. Almost five, curfew time in autumn. At the first clang of the hour, the sellers became even more frantic.
“I can’t decide!” Father said. “Quick, you there, Aterscha tout, give me two–”
The Aterscha seller whipped two necklaces over his head.
“No, no, I don’t mean Aterscha, I mean, who did I mean, Malachite?”
Father said, “I know, I know, I want a ten year full benefits program from…eh.” The clock struck four.
“No, I’ve changed my mind, a day stamp from Okin for me and my daughter.”
He yanked Malachite’s hand forward, and just in time the dazed and happy Okin seller stamped their palms with virulent green ink.
The clock struck five and the crowd of sellers fell silent. They couldn’t ply their trade until nine o’clock the next morning. Father and Malachite received some dark looks.
“I’ll think about it tonight, good sellers, so I can make a better informed, more longtime commitment tomorrow!”
The godsellers departed home, muttering, but not actively hostile. They would get another chance tomorrow.
Father hugged Malachite. “Day one went well, don’t you think? Exactly as planned.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Malachite said sourly. “You didn’t tell me anything.”
“With good reason,” Father said. “Your face can be read like a book.”
“What are you up to?” the godlessness seller remarked behind Malachite’s back. Malachite’s heart jumped. She hadn’t realized the woman was still around.
“Hi!” she said with a wide smile.
“Who are you, then?” Father asked.
“I sell freedom, during working hours, that is,” the godless woman said, making sure the vigilant god Am didn’t misunderstand her.
“It’s not really freedom,” Malachite said. “It’s a like a favor from the gods.”
“A favor is a promise,” the woman said. “Promises are serious business, for gods.”
Father frowned, but didn’t answer. “Come girl, let’s find lodgings for the night.”
“My name is Gretta,” the woman called after them. “Find me tomorrow, I’ll keep a place open for you!”
Father climbed on her back and directed her to the north. “Do you believe Gretta?” she panted. She looked back several times, and each time Gretta still stood there, staring after them. Malachite liked that. She wanted to see the woman again. Someone who’d talk to her instead of Father. All these men acting like she was invisible.
Father shrugged. “I don’t care about godliness or godlessness, so it doesn’t matter if I believe her or not. But I don’t have time to strike up acquaintance with anyone, certainly not with a godseller.”
The next morning Malachite woke cramped and hungry. It had taken her a long time to find lodging, and they’d had to make do with cold porridge and old tea for dinner. They’d climbed to their room in darkness, only briefly lighting the stub of candle to stow their packs and find a spot to sleep on.
Malachite crept to the tiny window in their attic room, looking for a clock tower. She discovered several, but since they all seemed to have stopped at a different time, there was no saying what time it really was. The sun was up and her stomach demanded breakfast.
She touched a finger to Father’s shoulder and scuttled backwards when he twitched awake. “Fire!” he shouted.
He often woke up like that. Malachite didn’t know why. It wasn’t fire that had killed her mother and sisters.
Father scrubbed his eyes. The green godstamp on his hand was already fading. It would protect them from whatever the god in question protected people from until the end of the afternoon.
“Good morning, dear. Did you sleep well?”
Malachite grunted. She’d taken the floor, in deference to Father’s years, but she’d been cold and awoken many times in the night.
She needed breakfast.
“Let’s go down and see what breakfast the landlady has for us.”
Malachite got up and made for the door.
“You’re forgetting the pack, dear.”
Malachite turned. “We’re not going to stay here tonight? Why?” It wasn’t as if this was a wonderful place, it was too low for her under the attic beams, it wasn’t heated and the bed was too narrow for two. But still. It felt safe, just because she’d slept here for the night and nothing bad had happened. And she didn’t want to lug their baggage around another day. Loitering in city streets was far more tiring than walking with a purpose.
“We don’t want to be easily found, Mal,” Father said with a sigh. “You know that, I’ve explained it to you many times.”
“But we didn’t give our real names. How would anyone find us?”
Father combed his hair with his fingers. “Gods have ways. We’re good for today, we’ve got this godstamp that will hide us from other gods. We’ll walk past Aterscha’s temple while we’re invisible, see how he’s doing. Then in the afternoon, we’ll start the bidding again.”
Malachite sighed. “You promised me we’d go see our old house. When are we going to do that?”
Father bound his greasy hair back with an old leather tie. “All right, we can walk close to it when we’re going to A–his Temple. But promise you’ll keep walking and that you won’t stare or talk to the neighbors.”
“Will they remember me?” Malachite said.
“Maybe. But you’ve changed a lot. I should wear a hat and a muffler, I guess. I’ve only gone a bit grey.”
Malachite bit her lip and said nothing. She remembered Father tall and strong with brown hair, a big laugh and a stride like a giant. Little danger there.
Their one-night landlady served them warm porridge, salt herring, boiled beets and mint tea for breakfast. Malachite tucked in. The room had been grotty, but the breakfast was grand stuff.
Malachite hoisted Father and backpack and walked back toward Dam Plaza. Malachite felt warm and stuffed from the lavish breakfast.
They crossed bigger streets and wended through narrow alleys. Across another semi-circular canal an enormous temple rose up. “The Wester Temple, home to Aterscha,” Father said.
“Where’s our house? You promised to take us past it,” Malachite said.
“I did. I just didn’t tell you. Apparently you didn’t recognize it,” Father said and stared up at the church’s tall steeple.
Tears burned in her eyes. What was going on with Father? She wasn’t sure if he’d been deliberately cruel or just preoccupied with his thoughts of revenge. She craned her neck to look back the way they’d come. She didn’t even know what to look for. She remembered their kitchen garden out back, and the steps leading up to it. Right, up to it! So it had been a subterranean apartment. Which would now be flooded and inaccessible.
“That’s A–his sign all right,” Father said. “Those crossed bars. Look at these stained glass windows. He must have had them repaired, that means a lot of funds and new subscribers. I thought he might have perished because he didn’t keep his promises and all his subscribers would have left.” He rubbed his chest, as he always did when thinking about or talking of Aterscha.
Malachite hesitated a moment longer, but Mother’s angry frown convinced her. She turned on her heels and went back to look for the old house.
“Hey!” Father shouted and pulled her ear. “Turn back. Right now, young lady.”
“I want to see the house,” Malachite said.
“See if you can find it on your own,” he sneered.
Her eyes were drawn to a narrow, crooked house in the middle of a row of similar houses. The floodmark, apparently never cleaned off, rode higher than Malachite’s head.
“Here!” she told Father. “I remember it.”
It wasn’t quite true, but when she peered through the broken windows she glimpsed half-remembered bits of mantelpiece and a mahogany cupboard, miraculously still holding a few plates in the rack.
Just peeking into the window didn’t seem like enough. Malachite looked around quickly and when she saw nobody, she pushed against the door. It was locked.
“Father,” she said, “give me the key.”
Father blew a raspberry. “Why with Otte would I still have that after all these years?”
Malachite set him down hard on the slippery cobbles and held out her hand. “Now.”
Father hemmed and hawed but in the end he gave her the key. “What are you doing, girl? Didn’t you promise to help me? Don’t you want revenge?”
“Yes,” Malachite said distractedly and turned the key in the lock. The incredibly familiar sound unlocked a door in her mind she hadn’t known existed. Behind the door a flood of emotions streamed in. Good ones, such as happiness about her father coming home. Sad ones, about the flood and her sisters, her mother, anger against the god. And against her father.
She heard her mother’s long-ago shout at her father. “You and your plans! Why did you go and subscribe to that crazy god? What’s wrong with Ordaan, I’d like to know? He’s always done right by us.”
“My dear, allow me to know best about these decisions,” her father answered. “Aterscha promised great things, you know. Things like clean water and no red sicknesses for the girls. Doesn’t that sound good?”
Deep in remembrance, Malachite stumbled through the door and stood in a musty hallway. The wooden floorboards sagged with every step, waterlogged and rotten. Every yard she ventured further into the dim interior, more memories rose up. The hatstand, a discolored ball left behind, the view of the small yard through a green-scummed back door. She had slept in a small alcove off the front room. She wanted to see it one more time.
She pushed the door to the front parlor open. It fell off the hinges with a wet plop. The room had grown a carpet of moss and mushrooms. Its wet smell rose up and stifled her.
A strange growth poked up through the thick moldy shag. A thin, jointed mushroom in bone-white.
Malachite turned away and deposited her breakfast in a corner. Father put a cool hand on her neck. Malachite looked up.
“That’s why I didn’t want you to go in,” he said in a clogged voice. “I didn’t want you to see this.”
Malachite wiped hot tears off her face. “Why was Mother so angry with you?” she asked.
“It was my fault,” Father said. “I should never have subscribed to Aterscha. Most people who’d stayed with Ordaan survived.”
Malachite looked into Father’s eyes. For the first time in years, she felt him being present for her, not mired in his own pain as usual. The connection flared briefly in her heart and then went away as Father averted his head and shuffled off.
Malachite remained behind. She wanted to bask in the glow of connection a bit longer. It wasn’t likely to happen again soon, if ever. Father did love her, he just didn’t know how to show it. Yes, it was Father’s fault. So what? He was paying for it every minute of his life.
With a new spring in her step she went out, locked the rotting door and returned the key to Father. Wordlessly, she knelt and offered him her back. He climbed on and they continued in silence. A different kind of silence than before.
“Did he kill only our family or others as well?” Malachite asked.
“Many, many others. That’s why he’s moved his temple, I think. Nobody here knows how he failed them.”
A man staggered out of the temple. He threw his head back and howled at the sky. Clearly possessed by a god, presumably Aterscha. Gods liked the open sky and demanded worshipers use their vocal chords for no reason anyone had ever managed to find out.
Father’s head whipped around at the sound. “Don’t stand there gawking, girl, he might notice us. Come, kneel to tie your shoelaces. Only concentrate on your shoes, nothing else.”
As Malachite bent down, the empty god flagons under her shirt rustled and warmed. Did they still contain traces of Otte and Liet, maybe getting excited at the presence of another god?
Father hummed a melody and swung his stick.
“What are you thinking of?” Malachite whispered.
Father believed the attention of a god could be deflected if you seemed completely preoccupied with something other than god. She’d wanted to ask Otte or Liet if it was true, but Father had forbidden it. He thought that perhaps gods communicated with each other on a level only accessible to them.
“All right, go, back to Dam Square. We have godsellers to attract.”
Malachite strode through alleys and over humpbacked bridges with Father directing as if he knew every inch of the way.
On Dam Square they bought fries and mayonnaise, eating while Father scouted out the godsellers whose attention he wanted to draw.
Malachite spotted the godless woman Gretta across the square. She felt her face split in a smile, but she didn’t dare wave at her where Father might see it.
Father hobbled around, dodging the godsellers that approached him because they saw his fading day stamp. Malachite followed him in case he needed support. Maybe she should get a job when all this was over. Amsterdam had a harbor. There would always be work for a good stevedore.
The hours struck by. Father loitered on the edges of the square, keeping his head down and his godstamp out of sight. Then he spotted something because he walked off so abruptly Malachite almost lost him in the thickening crowd.
“You there,” Father whispered urgently. “Are you a betting man?”
The man shifted his chew straw from left to right in his mouth. “Could be. What do you want to bet on?”
“Well, not quite like that,” Father said. “I’ve got a proposition for you. Do you ever bet on which god people will subscribe to?”
The betting man exchanged a glance with his pals. “Never, stranger. Not going to, either. I’d be a fool to interfere in the business of the gods. Especially not here in the square. Am reinforces his curfew, and he prohibits lying as well.”
“It’s not lying if you do it right,” Father said. “Listen up. I’m a stranger, as you rightly spotted, and well done, sir. My godstamp is going to run out at the end of the day. I’m going to need a new subscription. Now what if I told you fellows to bet on a certain god, but I strung the godsellers along for a goodly time and everybody thought I’d take another subscription than I was planning to?”
The man pushed his ratty old hat back on his forehead and scratched his temple. “What’s my stake? Can’t see any.”
“Just hear me out? You work the crowd and call out you’re taking bets on who’s going to get me and my daughter’s subscription. You’ll collect. I get an unexpected subscription, you’ve won a lot of bets.”
“Why would you do that?” the betting man asked. “What’s in it for you? I don’t trust no proposition that only seems to benefit me.”
“Well, I want half your take,” Father said. “Simple as that. I need money to live on and find something more permanent here.”
“Easier ways to do that,” the betting man said. “Just subscribe to a god and the congregation will find you a job.”
“It sounds simple to you, maybe, but for a foreigner like me, it’s just hard to choose between all these gods. What if I pick one I find uncongenial? What if they don’t have work that suits me?”
“You’re a choosy bugger, you are,” the betting man said, but it sounded almost admiring. “You know what, I don’t think there’s any harm in it. I don’t see why the gods would object. Am hasn’t burned us for thinking or talking about it, why would he care if we actually did it? Right, fellows?”
His pals nodded.
Father and the betting man made their deals while the cronies surrounded them to shroud them from the godsellers’ sight.
Malachite’s attention slid away from the whispered numbers and counter-numbers Father exchanged with the betting man. Above the looming roofs of the Dam palaces the sky winked blue and inviting. At home she’d have been at work under this sky, feeling the weight of boxes and bales on her shoulders, pushing her down to earth, making her feel real. Here it was as if she could float away on the wind any moment, nothing to hold her feet on the ground.
She touched her palm, but the green godstamp had no fullness to it and she just felt her own weather-roughened skin. Why was she still alive, while her sisters Rosemary and Rosequartz weren’t? Had the god judged her and found her wanting?
Father’s bark startled her out of her reverie.
“Come with me girl, don’t stand there dreaming. I made a deal with Yoris and we’ve got to get to work.”
“What do you want me to do?” Malachite said, perking up at the thought of a task ahead.
“Stand close to me and listen carefully.”
“And then what?”
“Nothing, just do as I say.”
Malachite mulled this all-too familiar answer over as they threaded their way through the throngs to the old monument of some long-forgotten war on the right leaf of the square. Father would never let her take any responsibility. Not in things that mattered to him. He was fine with her breaking her back in the harbor and bringing home good wages, fish, and bits of damaged cargo.
As before, Father became besieged with godsellers in minutes. His daystamp was visibly fading. Godsellers of all genders, colors, sizes and style of delivery shouted so loud she couldn’t follow them. Anyway, she already knew what was going to happen. She let her eyes glide over the frantic crowd, rolling her shoulders and rejoicing in the lack of weight on them. She could stand straight and breathe deeply.
There, Yoris the betting man slithered through and placed himself on the steps of the monument. “It’s like a puppet show, isn’t it, good people? Which god is the traveler going to pick? Anyone wants to make a little money? I’ll take bets who it’s going to be. What do you think, Okin, Amrak, Alverstra? Take your pick, good people, come to me and I’ll tell you the odds. Maybe he won’t pick your god, but you’ll still have a chance of making money this afternoon!”
One man came up to Yoris, but turned away in disgust. Malachite knew she shouldn’t be watching Yoris, but here eyes kept slipping back to him. He moved around and repeated his pitch in another location in the crowd. As the afternoon wore on more and more godsellers took a chance on a bet with him.
As before, Father let the godsellers work to the last minute before five. The presence of Am loomed over the crowd, godly breath tickling their necks. Am took his curfew seriously, and everybody knew they wouldn’t get the few second’s leeway as they might have gotten on a less noteworthy afternoon.
The first bell of five o’clock tolled. Malachite’s attention sharpened.
“Aterscha, you’ve given me great odds, any chance of a reduction in price?” Father asked.
The Aterscha seller threw Father a disgusted look. “You’re going to pull that same trick on me again, right? Fine, a ten year subscription, first year free, all children and spouses free, added bonus of good housing and clean water.”
The second bell tolled.
“How about flood warnings and safety?”
The seller snorted. “Aterscha doesn’t do that, you’d have to ask other gods.”
“Well,” Father said, “in that case, I think I’ll be going with…”
The crowd drew a collective breath and held it.
“I have a deal for you, stranger,” a new voice started, nervously. Malachite couldn’t see where the speaker was.
“Okay, no more time to think, it’s going to be…Amrak.”
The crowd sighed in relief.
“–florins!” the nervous voice shrieked.
Now Malachite could see who’d spoken, because all his neighbors cringed away from him as fast as they possibly could.
It was a small man with only one god amulet over his arm, who looked horrified and started to bow. But before he could abase himself, he burst into flame. A pork-like smell invaded the air, but only briefly, and within seconds the man had burnt to a crisp and fallen to ashes. The crowd drew back and touched their tattoos.
Malachite gasped. How harsh of Am to burn that man for a few words of huckstering past curfew. Otte and Liet would never do that.
The Aterscha seller spit at Father’s feet. “See what you caused? I don’t know what you’re playing at, foreigner, but I don’t like it. There’s ways to get you kicked out of Amsterdam, you know.”
“I thought the gods wanted as many citizens as possible,” Father said.
“Ach. You’re hopeless. Don’t let me catch you here tomorrow,” the Aterscha seller said as he shouldered his way out of the tight crowd around Father.
Malachite’s gaze found Yoris. The betting man smiled widely and tipped his hat to Father. Then he walked off.
Malachite and Father waited until the crowd had thinned. Then they walked another route than Yoris had taken.
“Shouldn’t we go after him and get our money?” Malachite asked.
“Mal, weren’t you listening? We arranged a meeting point beforehand.”
“But what if he doesn’t go there?”
Father shrugged. “That would be a nuisance. But I think he’ll be there. He’s thinking that tomorrow he can make even more money. Didn’t you see the betting going crazy at the end? People like this kind of thing. They don’t know what I’m doing and why, but it’s entertainment. He’ll be there.”
Malachite soldiered on, following Father’s direction. It had been a long day. Standing around and waiting was far more tiring than stevedoring.
They wended through the ancient alleys until Father pointed out a street corner café.
Yoris was already ensconced at the bar, counting money. He nodded at Father, lifting a finger for another draught beer. Father accepted it gratefully and drank it down in one gulp. He burped and asked for another. Malachite coughed. Father glanced at her, and without acknowledging her ordered her a small beer.
Even after their brief moment of connection, he wasn’t behaving any better towards her. Maybe Mother was right, and his preoccupation and selfishness needed to be punished.
“You did me a favor, foreigner without a name,” Yoris said. “Here, fifty-three florins for you. Do you want to join forces tomorrow?”
Father’s shoulders lowered, but Malachite thought Yoris wouldn’t have noticed the subtle signs of relaxation. “Thanks, I would. Not exactly the same, though. Here’s my thoughts.”
Malachite tried to follow the explanation, but it was too hard in the café’s pleasant warmth, with her belly full of beer.
A hand landed on her elbow. Malachite drowsily turned her head. The woman smiled at her. It was Gretta again. Malachite smiled up at her.
“Can I offer you something to eat?” Gretta asked.
“Can you read my mind?”
“No. But you rubbed your stomach. And I’ve been young too, though not as strapping as you, and I was always hungry.”
“Thanks, I’d love to.” Malachite looked around for her father, but he was drinking beer with the betting man and his cronies. He wouldn’t mind, she hoped.
Gretta ordered pea soup and smoked smelt with beer. The woman ate sparingly while Malachite wolfed her meal.
“Are you and your father going to stay in Amsterdam?” she asked when Malachite was mopping up the last of the soup with a heel of old bread.
Malachite chewed while she thought her answer over. The truth was, she didn’t know. If Father got what he wanted, some kind of vengeance on Aterscha, what then? Originally, Malachite had wanted to return to Rotterdam and resume her life there.
But now that she was here she thought she might like to stay. She liked the old houses, the old brick and canal scent, the trees, the small harbor. Maybe some part of her felt at home, who knew? She’d spent the first eight years of her life here, although she didn’t consciously remember much of them. She could find work.
“Maybe I will stay here,” Malachite said and started on the rest of the stale bread basket. Peas and smelt were filling, but she was still hungry. Always had been.
“But not your father?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we’ll return to Rotterdam, I don’t know.” Malachite halted, conscious of blabbing out all kinds of things. But nothing important, she was sure.
“Done?” Gretta asked.
“Done with what?” Father put his arm around Malachite’s shoulders. “Time we were off home, dear. Say goodbye to the nice lady.”
Malachite frowned into her stale bread. Father thought she’d been speaking out of turn. “I haven’t said anything!” she said.
Gretta’s mouth twitched. It made Malachite furious. She wasn’t stupid. If only people would tell her things instead of smirking and making veiled remarks.
“Don’t be angry at the child, foreigner. I’m Gretta, seller of godlessness. What are you planning? Your antics have made quite a stir among the godsellers.”
Father deliberated. “You speak as if you’re not one of them. Yet don’t you peddle amulets like the others, only without benefits?”
Gretta’s eyes blazed. “No benefits? What about freedom? Freedom to choose where you live, what kind of work you do, what to think.”
“No god ever impeded my freedom to think,” Father said. “But what about poverty and health, bad luck and bad weather? Gods protect us against those.”
“I am not,” Gretta said. “I know we used to be, though. We used to create our own medicine, our own insurance, our own dykes against the ravages of disease and flooding. Why shouldn’t we do so again?”
Father’s eyebrows rose. Malachite could practically feel his interest evaporate. “Preach all you like, my good woman, but not to me. I’m going to find lodging for the night.”
“Stay at our hotel,” Gretta said. “You’ve purchased an Amrak stamp, but no one has offered you shelter and food, have they? We will, because we believe in people looking after people. Not trusting gods to do so.”
Father didn’t walk away at once. Malachite pulled Father’s sleeve. “Why not, Father? We have to sleep somewhere.”
“How much?” Father asked.
“It’s free,” Gretta said. “Though you might have to listen to us talk over breakfast.”
Father’s mouth twitched. “That’s a steep price, but I’ll pay it. Come, Mal.”
Malachite sauntered after Father and Gretta as they navigated the dark streets, only here and there lit by oil lamp shine from inhabited houses or street corner cafés. She had made this happen, she had made new interesting friends. She. Not Father, with all his wiles and machinations and dark thoughts.
The room Father and Malachite had slept in not only had two comfortable beds, it had a chair and a desk and even a carpet. Malachite woke up in sunshine, as morning light reflected off the smooth canal surface below her window. The glass was intact, the ancient double kind, with only a bit of a haze at the corners and edges.
Father grunted as he woke up. “I have to meet with Yoris again, dear. This is the last day, though. We’re going to get that god, make him pay!”
These angry thoughts propelled Father out of bed. He bent and stretched to unkink his stiff old muscles.
“Breakfast first?” Malachite asked.
In the big room downstairs twenty or so people sat around big tables to eat. Others rushed back and forth with porridge, hot boiled eggs, tea and light beer. A great breakfast. She would have liked some fish as well.
She was just finishing off her second bowl of porridge, when Father stood up. Already? It was so nice and warm here and no one bothered her with god talk.
“You can stay,” Father said and tousled her hair like he’d used to when she was younger. “I’ll come pick you up later, when we go to Dam Square again. Is that all right with you, Gretta?”
Gretta nodded. “I think Mal has had enough of hanging out on the streets.”
Father threw her a killing stare but Gretta bore it without flinching.
Gretta was so great, Malachite wanted to be like her. As she watched Father’s stooped back depart, she thought of never seeing him again, and staying here among the godless. There was a faint twinge of guilt, but no sadness at all.
She’d just settled into the washing up with Gretta when the outer door flew open, men’s voices shouting and panicking. Gretta put a hand on her shoulder.
Malachite put her half-dry plate down. “What?”
Gretta looked stricken. Why?
Malachite shouldered past the woman into the hallway, towards the shouting. She had no idea what was going on, yet somewhere inside she already knew. Something with her father. Her breath rasped in her throat and her hands felt thick and stiff like work gloves.
The throng of shouting men prevented any glimpse of whoever was being carried inside.
“Father!” Malachite called out. “Is that you?”
The men fell silent, as if recognizing her right to be more upset than they were, and opened ranks.
Father lolled between two men, blood on his brow and on his shirt. His feet dragged will-less over the floor, one shoe missing.
Gretta grabbed Malachite from behind and stopped her from throwing herself onto Father.
“He’s hurt, Malachite, don’t touch him. We’ll take care of him.” And to the men: “Take him to the front parlor.”
Malachite could only stand frozen as the men dragged Father’s broken form to the front parlor, onto the ancient couch.
Gretta bent over him, feeling his pulse, touching his face. She opened his shirt and touched his distended stomach. Her face fell. “Malachite, he’s been beaten badly. Go boil some rags in the kitchen. Clean water, mind.”
Malachite’s feet grew roots. All her irritation about Father had flown out of her head. He was her family. The kindness of strangers weighed nothing compared to the indifference of a parent. “What happened?”
One of the men said they’d rescued him from a group of Aterscha subscribers and godsellers. They wanted him to keep away from Dam Square.
Malachite nodded, and kept nodding until her head swung loose on her neck. “That fellow with the amulets, he warned Father before.”
“Sit down, girl,” Gretta said. “Hold his hand, gently, and talk to him while we wash his wounds.”
Malachite sank down on the footstool and grasped Father’s hand. It was cold and limp, and so heavy. She lifted it onto her lap and stroked it gently. “Father, dear Father,” she said, and then didn’t know how to go on. “I’m staying with you, right here,” she said. That was pointless as well. What did you say to a sick and…her thoughts stuttered. Sick people could get well.
Someone came in with hot water. She should have gotten that! She wasn’t doing anything right.
She sneaked a peak at Father’s bared belly. It was swollen hard and shiny. She hastily looked up towards his face. That seemed almost worse, although she feared the way the belly looked. His eyes were blackened and puffed to slits, his lip was cut up and one side of his face seemed strange, as if had shifted from its former shape.
“Father, say something.”
Father’s bleeding lips shifted and produced sound. He didn’t open his eyes, maybe because he couldn’t.
Her belly turned cold. “I can’t hear you,” she said.
She bent her head closer to his face. “It’s all set up with Yoris,” Father said. “Take over the bidding for me. They won’t suspect you.”
Malachite didn’t know what to say. She had wanted to wash her hands of the whole revenge business, and now he asked her to take over?
“Yes, of course,” her lips whispered, but her head was circling around the request like a cat in a basket, unable to settle on a yea or a nay. Was she really going to do it? Why should she? She’d be the one in danger, not Father. He’d called this upon himself with his public displays of the past two days.
Father’s limp hand twitched. Malachite held it gently, but although his breath fluted through his bluing lips, he didn’t speak again.
The light slanting through the big windows indicated that midday had passed and that mid-afternoon might have as well. Malachite had heard no bells and hadn’t felt time passing. She looked out over the canal below, and opened the windows. Father needed the fresh air.
There was no doubt in her mind now. She would go to Dam Square, do as Father had asked and take the consequences. She walked away from the still form on the sofa. She had a duty to perform.
Outside, a silence lay expectant on her shoulders. The empty godwater flagons rustled against her chest, but when she held them against her ears they were silent. She righted her shoulders against the air’s pressure and marched off, her footfalls loud on the wooden pavement.
On Dam Square, she found the by now familiar milling crowd. Yoris came over to her. “Where is Dries? I heard he got beaten up by some god’s heavy boys.”
Malachite nodded. “It’s true. But he’s asked me to continue his work. Tell me about the signals.”
Yoris plucked his lip. “You’re just a girl, even if you’re tall as a man. The Aterscha seller was angry yesterday. It probably was Aterscha’s fellows that beat your father up. Why would he cooperate now?”
Malachite racked her brain for the right thing to say. “I won’t wait as long as Father did. I’m not going to risk the curfew.” She shivered as she remembered the screaming, burning man Am had punished.
“Good. I already did a lot of work setting up the bets and the hedges. As we agreed, I get eighty percent of the take.”
Malachite knew nothing about betting, but she knew very well how to get a good price for kale and herring at the market. “That’s not the price my father agreed on with you.” She caught his gaze and held it.
Yoris broke first. “Damn, I can’t look a pretty girl in the eye and cheat her! You’re right, it was seventy percent.”
Malachite snorted. “I know it was fifty.”
Yoris scratched his head. “Yes, it was, but forgive me for saying, working with you is a bigger risk. You can’t ask me to take it for the same cut. Sixty percent, no more.”
Malachite held out her hand. “Agreed.” Yoris and Father might or might not have settled on fifty, but she was satisfied with this deal.
“Tell me about the signals,” she said.
“I’ve been taking bets all day. Some bets on which god your dad would pick, but most that he wouldn’t pick Aterscha. Then I laid off the bets as much as I could on subscribers of Aterscha. They think your dad will choose Aterscha in the end.”
“That’s the plan,” Malachite said. “He just wants a good deal.”
Malachite walked Dam Square, listening in on Yoris’ conversations with people he was trying to talk into betting.
Three o’clock passed by and the Aterscha seller moved to the crowd to take up his spot at the Monument. He was flanked by several heavily built worshipers. She risked getting beaten up like Father if she took his place, but it wasn’t going to stop her.
Any moment now.
A group of godless entered the square, within their midst the woman Gretta.
“Is he all right?” Malachite asked.
“He’s well looked after. We thought we’d come and support you. Since I’m sort of hoping you’ll join us.”
“I’m thinking about that,” Malachite said. “I like the way you live, and you’ve been very kind to me.”
Gretta nodded with satisfaction. “I thought so. Good luck, and let me know if there’s anything we can do.”
Malachite swallowed a lump of something bitter. “Thank you so much.”
She would not think about Father or what might happen to him. First, she would do what he’d asked her as best as she could.
She walked over to the steps of the ancient monument. The carved figures writhed above her head in forgotten torment.
“My stamp is running out!” she called out over the general din. “Who shall I subscribe to?”
At first no one paid her any attention, except a small man who elbowed his neighbor aside to come towards her. The crowd opened up to let him through and Malachite slid into the gap, getting two steps higher up to the monument.
“Are you looking for a day stamp or a yearly subscription?” the Aterscha godseller asked.
Malachite felt bad about having to play him. “I don’t know yet,” she said and twirled the end of a braid. “What are you offering”?
His eyebrows dipped. “Are you with that guy, that foreigner that kept us dancing yesterday?”
“What if I was?”
“Then I would tell you to stop playing games, if you don’t want to end up like him.”
Malachite swallowed and moved forward an inch. She mustn’t give any ground here. “A lot of people have come here today to watch this spectacle. I’m sure the god Am likes the revenue. And a lot of people have a stake in the spectacle, many of them your fellow subscribers.”
Something moved in his face, only minutely, but she’d been right. “It means I’m selling less subscriptions, got it? I couldn’t care less, personally, about your tricks and turns, but I’ve got a family to take care of.”
“Let’s play the game, no hard feelings, okay?” she said. “I’ll cut you in, 5 percent.”
The godseller’s dark eyes raked the crowd, gauging the take. “Ten.”
“Deal,” Malachite said.
She turned away to hide her flush of relief. She was just copying Father’s mixture of threats and blandishments, but it was working.
Not much longer now.
The empty flagons glowed warmly against her chest. She tapped them for luck. It was unlikely that Otte and Liet could help her here, in the stronghold of so many other gods, but the reminder of their existence comforted her.
The godseller rowed his arms to make space around her.
She raised her voice. “My stamp is running out! Who’s offering me a good subscription?” This time, through a trick of acoustics or a god’s help, her voice carried.
The Aterscha seller answered loudly. “I offer good health, painless childbirth and pleasure in sex!”
The surrounding men snickered. Malachite suppressed an urge to box their ears.
“That sounds good! But how about damp winters, flooding, leaky roofs?”
The Aterscha man shifted on his heels. “We offer housing above flood level, good health, leak-free roofs!”
“Anyone else?” Malachite yelled.
Offers came in of many children, mold-free storage, clothes that never tore or stained.
Malachite listened to each godseller in return, derided their offers and demanded better ones.
The tension rose as the hour progressed. She caught Yoris’ eye, and he nodded at her to proceed.
She steeled herself to play the game of offers and counteroffers until she heard the first bell of the four-o clock hour toll, an hour before the market would close. But also an hour of Am’s protection of Dam Square. She couldn’t hold on any longer.
“Aterscha,” she said to the dark godseller, “I accept your offer.” She held out her hand.
The seller’s hand shot forward as his face was still rounding out in astonishment.
Malachite grasped it and shook it three times. She unhooked an amulet from his arm and slung it around her neck.
The realization of what just happened eddied out in circles around the monument. Men cursed, women shrieked in anger. Their bets had gone awry.
Yoris tapped his nose at her and disappeared in the crowd.
Malachite shouldered past the godseller and climbed the highest steps of the monument. “Listen up, people of Amsterdam!” she said. “I subscribe to Aterscha, as I have done since my birth. Aterscha owes me a great boon. Because when I was ten years old, he failed to protect me and my family from the flood.”
People nodded, remembering.
“Aterscha, how will you repay me? You owe me life debts on three people, my mother, my two sisters. And my Father-–who you had beat up this morning.”
The vigilant god Am didn’t react, proof of Malachite’s verisimilitude.
The godseller’s face bulged as Aterscha possessed him, while at the same time the realization of the huge debt seemed to dawn.
“Liar!” Aterscha roared. “Cheat! I didn’t forfeit your trust!”
The air charged as he spoke. Am’s edict on lying and cheating clamped around the god’s manifestation, inexorable and impartial.
The crowd shut up. Many people standing close to Malachite wore the blues and amulets of Aterscha. What would they do?
A man next to her lifted his amulet over his head and tossed it at the godseller’s feet.
“Betrayer!” he said.
Aterscha roared and flailed the godseller’s arms and protested his innocence. But to no avail. The struggle between Am, who didn’t allow lies on his square, and Aterscha who was still a god with many worshipers, became more and more unequal as subscriber after subscriber tossed his necklace, spit on it and stepped away from the struggling Aterscha.
Malachite copied the action of her fellow ex-subscribers and started moving towards the safety of the godless group. The flagons beneath her vest tingled. She tapped them, but no response came.
She caught Gretta’s eye and waved to show she was all right. After the curfew, she’d go find Yoris and cash her winnings, but she didn’t care about money right now. Aterscha was humiliated and in the process of getting evicted from the center of town. Vengeance had been served!
She whipped her gaze back to the hapless godseller. The poor man now stood alone in a sea of tossed necklaces, as the crowd moved away from him and his tainted god.
Aterscha must still have followers who knew nothing of this debacle, but more and more people would learn of the event as disgruntled ex-subscribers went home. Good.
A hum in the air set her teeth on edge.
The godless group stiffened. Because all of them did it at the same time, it became magnified and meaningful. Malachite froze.
Her flagons tingled and burned. They got hotter and hotter and she opened her shirt to take them off their chain and toss them away. The fragile old plastic didn’t break on the wooden pavement, as expected, but emitted so much heat the air above them shimmered. The same shimmer was in the air above the frozen godless.
Malachite tasted the same flavor in the air as this morning, something salty and aniseed-sweet at the same time.
The godless broke out in a ululating chant. Then the invisible string that held them broke and they sagged into individual poses, no longer a group.
Malachite reached Gretta, who was bent over coughing.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Gretta’s eyes rolled in her head independent of each other.
“I am. I wasn’t before. I am new. I came where it was empty.”
It wasn’t Gretta speaking. But then who?
“Get me the vessels that created me. I want to remember and honor them.”
It wasn’t until Gretta gestured to the pavement, where the no longer smoking flagons lay, that she finally understood. She had witnessed the birth of a new god. Gretta and her friends had been empty, uninhabited by a god. The waters from Otte and Liet she had poured into the dead river had given birth to a new god, and from the river it had entered the godless, and therefore empty humans.
Her new friend didn’t exist anymore. Gretta was a vessel inhabited by a god. If the god left, would Gretta then come back?
She handed Gretta the miraculously intact flagons. The godless moved as one to turn away and walk off, still possessed by the new god. To its temple? Very likely the same godless house where Father lay dying on the couch.
She ran to catch up. “Wait! What’s your name?”
The god’s foreheads wrinkled identically. “I have no name yet. Give me one.”
It seemed obvious. “Amstel. Mstel, I mean. You are the river.”
“You speak true. How did I come to be?”
“Your parents, river goddesses themselves, Otte and Liet, gave me water to pour in a dead river. You were born from that.”
The god nodded with its many heads.
“I think you should give me a reward,” Malachite said.
“That seems like a reasonable request. What do you need?”
Malachite liked that. Straight to the point. “My father, who carried Otte’s water all the way here at Her request, has been beaten up by another god. Heal him.”
“Show me this person,” the god’s mouths said.
Malachite and the now possessed group entered the old house. Father still lay on the couch, more or less alive. His color was ashen grey and his breathing loud and irregular.
“Heal him,” Malachite said, pointing.
Three of the god’s possessees stepped forward and put their hands on Father. Malachite cringed when their hands landed on his distended belly, almost feeling the pain herself.
The other god-possessed jerked as if cut loose from strings and staggered around individually, groaning, clutching their heads or throats. A scaled-down version of the hum she’d heard when the new god was forming emanated from the hands on Father.
Father jerked upright. His yellowed eyeballs circled, moving independently, finally settling on a leering squint. He was possessed.
“Do not touch this vessel!” something only barely resembling Father’s voice spoke.
The ex-godless jerked back from the body.
Malachite wrung her hands. It had been over. She’d allowed herself to hope the new god Mstel would cure Father. And if not, she would become a subscriber to Mstel and live out her life here.
But now this. Which god had taken him?
“Who are you?” she said. Her voice quavered.
Father’s head whipped backwards and a growling roar left his body. That kind of abuse would kill him even faster.
“If you’re not careful, you’re going to kill your vessel!” she said. “Who are you?”
The god turned the circling yellow orbs on her. “I am Aterscha!” it roared. “All bow before me.”
No one reacted.
This clearly didn’t please Aterscha. “Where is everybody? I was legion, and now I’m one.”
Malachite gasped. Only one. Father was his last worshiper? That was just wrong.
“If you want to remain a god, you’ll have to heal the vessel,” she said. “And double quick too, it’s dying right now.”
The god moaned, but let the body fall back.
“Do you believe in me?” a much smaller, politer voice asked from Father’s mouth.
“No,” Malachite said. She didn’t know that much about gods and worshiping, but she was pretty sure it would hop over to her head if she wasn’t careful.
She watched, but apart from Father’s continued breathing, no signs of healing or dying were visible.
She turned to the ex-godless. “Mstel, if Aterscha is healing that body instead of you, you still owe me a boon. Don’t forget.”
The three possessed nodded simultaneously.
Father’s body twitched. One eye opened. It was still suffused with yellow, but noticeably less so than before. The body lurched up, opened its mouth and vomited out black stuff.
Malachite keened. Gretta, or the god Mstel, put her hand on Malachite’s arm. “Shh. It’s part of the healing.” Malachite leaned into the embrace. Maybe some part of Gretta was still alive, after all.
Father clutched his belly. During the next hour, more necrotic tissue and old blood left his body in various ways. At last he seemed empty and was lowered back on the couch. Even the old scar on his chest had healed, showing a sharp blue and red tattoo of triumphant Aterscha.
“Mal,” his voice said.
It sounded like him.
“Where am I?”
Malachite told him what had happened.
When she told him how he’d been possessed by Aterscha, he covered his eyes with his hands. “No, that can’t be true. He can’t be in me. I won’t allow it.”
“You’re the last person to believe in him.”
“I hate him,” Father said and coughed up some blood. “It’s revolting to have it in me.”
“Please stay calm.”
Father levered himself upwards on his elbows, his face contorted in pain. “I’ve got him where I want him. No followers left. I’m going to kill him. He has to disappear from this earth!”
Malachite stretched out her hands, afraid of touching Father’s aching body.
“Father, don’t. Let it go. We’ve practically killed Aterscha. If you stop caring, he’ll just wither away and die.”
Father sank back in the pillows. “I can’t do that. I can’t, Mal. For so long it’s been the only thing keeping me alive.”
Malachite fought to keep her face calm and smooth. Father didn’t even realize what a hurtful thing he’d just said. He never did.
“Kiss me,” he said.
Malachite hesitated. He was never affectionate, but maybe he felt sorry for his thoughtless words. Father’s hand grasped her upper arm, the other hand touching her waist.
“No!” she shouted.
Father had taken her bread knife from its sheath. It was poised over the middle of the miraculously healed tattoo.
Malachite lunged to knock the knife aside, but it was too late. Father had plunged the dagger into his heart. A gulp of dark red blood shot from his mouth and he fell back into the pillows, already dead.
Malachite waited for Aterscha to heal the body once more, but nothing happened. Father had gotten his wish.
He’d killed the god. Their revenge was done.
Mal’s eyes burned. She didn’t feel triumphant, but empty and sad. Now she was all alone. No mother, no sisters, no father. She turned from the body and met Gretta’s eyes. Something else looked out of them.
No, not quite alone. She had a powerful new god as an ally. The rest was up to her.
Bo Balder lives and works in the ancient Dutch city of Utrecht, close to Amsterdam. When she isn’t writing, you can find her madly designing knitwear, painting, and reading. She’s a graduate of Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. She’s a member of Codex Writers Group and the Villa Diodati Expat Workshop. She will be the first Dutch author to have published a story in the famous F&SF( Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine),forthcoming sept 2015. Her other short fiction has appeared in print and emagazine format. For a full bibliography, see her website.