The gods’ house was unguarded. Toima knew this was unthinkable; it was the blood-duty of a single warrior to guard it from sun’s rise to twilight. Yet before her the house stood, a strange and unnatural structure rising out of the forest like a gigantic metallic mushroom, its tarnished, ovoid body perched atop a perfect cube of white stone. No one present. Beside the featureless metal door in one side of the cube-base, the place where the warrior always sat was shockingly empty.
I shouldn’t be here. The truth of the statement echoed in Toima’s every bone, and she clutched the clay water-pot closer to her thin chest. She had been going to the springs, like she did every day to fetch water for her mother. One could glimpse the top of the gods’ house from the path, but not since she was very small had she sneaked away, through thickets and cane-brakes, to peek at the house. It was improper. Everyone knew the gods did not want humans interfering in their affairs. Therefore, the house was guarded. Why had she risked discovery to spy on the place now?
But there hadn’t been a guard today. And Toima did not like the fluttering of temptation in her stomach.
“Why is no one allowed into the gods’ house?” she had asked her mother when she was younger and more ignorant.
“It is forbidden,” came the reply. “Long ago, the gods deemed it improper for the unclean to come into their homes. And so we have obeyed them ever since.”
“But the gods vanished many generations ago,” Toima had said.
“It changes nothing. An immortal god’s rule may not be changed by humans. We do not speculate why they chose to leave us, but their laws will stand forever. Why all these questions?”
Toima had given no answer. She could not explain to herself her fascination with the gods. But her ears had been open to tales of them and their house in the forest. One of those stories she now recalled: an anecdote used by elders to impress upon children the sanctity of the gods’ house. Many years past, the tale went, two boys chanced to find the gods’ house unguarded, and commenced—as boys would—throwing stones at it. The rocks ricocheted off the walls with a noise like the striking of a gong. At last one boy hurled an ill-aimed rock, and it crashed through one of the oval windows ringing the top of the house. The building began to howl, whooping and shrieking so loudly that the din was heard in the village. In terror the boys fled. They confessed their sins in the village circle, and were beaten to death there for the offense. On festival nights, when all sat around a bonfire on the hard-beaten dirt of the dancing-ground, an ancient woman had recited the story to Toima and her friends. “The house’s scream! It sounded like a giant beast. A noise like death! It yanked your heart into your throat and made your skin feel like it was crawling off your body and running far away. Do not go near the gods’ house!” the crone had warned.
I am going to leave, Toima thought. She turned around and started making her way back to the path. Yet some perverse attraction slowed her feet to a stop, then pulled her back to the edge of the clearing around the house. No, I shouldn’t. No! She placed the pot on the ground, crept forward, and peered out from the cover of a bush. Still no guard. A noise like death. But that had only happened when the boys broke the window. Hitting the walls with rocks hadn’t done anything. The feeling of temptation in her belly was stronger. Surely, she could just touch the house. That wouldn’t be breaking the gods’ rules, would it? “Be a good girl,” her mother always said. Toima was not a good girl; her mother did not know a tenth of what she had done. She was very good at sneaking.
She stared at the house. I’m just going to touch the door, she thought, and whispered, “Sorry, mama.”
Picking up the water-pot—it would not do to leave it, if she had to run off quickly—, she scampered across the clearing with great, silent strides of her adolescent legs. Thick greenery carpeted the ground everywhere, with saplings shooting up from the undergrowth, but the vegetation failed close to the cubic pillar, where the overhang of the house blocked sun and rain. There, the dirt was bare and hard-packed where the guard had paced across it for years. Toima stepped carefully to avoid leaving any telling footprints. She went up to the door, then put out her hand and touched the smooth surface with a single finger. It was cool. She drew back quickly as if she had expected a shock, paused, then placed the palm of her hand firmly against the door. Her heart was beating madly. A rustling in the trees made her jerk away. She spun her head to look, but there was only a bird hopping between branches.
Reassured, Toima touched the door again. She noticed a fingerbreadth gap between the door and the jamb on one side. She put her eye to the crack and squinted into the blackness behind, but could make out nothing. A new temptation rippled through her. How did the door open? It had no handle; it could not swing outward, for a lip of wall covered its edge.
Deep in her mind Toima heard one of her mother’s early lessons. “The gods tempted humankind, offering us the means to become like them. Our ancestors were wise. They knew they had been created as mortal men and women, and to become gods they would have to abandon this. Perversion! It is the severest sin. So they refused temptation. They passed the test. In reward, the gods gave us paradise.”
Toima could not help herself. She gave the door a cautious little push. Nothing. She tried again with more force, but it did not budge. Puzzled, she stared at it, then on a whim put her fingers into the gap at the door’s edge and tugged sideways. Grudgingly, the door moved. It crunched a bit at first, then slid more smoothly, disappearing into a slot in the wall. At the last moment it squeaked loudly in its track, as the long-unused mechanisms rubbed together. Toima’s knees buckled at the noise and her heartbeat rushed, pounding in her ears and temples. But the awful sound stopped, no guard rushed from the forest edge, no demon emerged from the heavens to smite her. And the door was open.
Beyond the doorway was an angular gray room, its floor blanketed in dust. The walls were bare except for two panes of smooth black glass set flush into the wall on Toima’s right. At the end of the room a shaft rose upward. What appeared to be a wheel-less cart sat at the shaft’s bottom, fitted to grooves in the wall. To the left of the cart, a metal staircase spiraled up out of sight.
Toima willed her leg muscles to tremulous action and stepped forward. The dust on the floor was slippery and clung to her toes. Her arms tensely clutched the water-pot against her ribs, which barely moved as she breathed. She stopped in the center of the room.
If the guard returned, she could no longer see or hear him easily. (Where was he? He would be executed if he was shirking his duty.) She turned around, but the thrill of her crime gripped her too tightly; she could not leave. An idea flashed into existence. She could shut the door, and hide within the house. Was it safe? On the inside of the door, there was a little notch near the edge. Toima put her fingers into it, thinking, staring out at the bright forest beyond, then pushed on the notch and slid the door closed. It squeaked briefly. The outside vanished until only a strip of light shone between door’s edge and the jamb. Gloom enveloped her.
Once her eyes acclimated to the dimness, she glided more confidently around the little room, scrutinizing the cart and peering into the dark glass panels. Their secrets were undiscoverable. She came to the foot of the stairs and looked up, where the light faded. Her will was no longer her own, she realized, and it pulled her upward, step by step. “The gods deemed it improper for the unclean to come into their homes.” Her mother’s voice echoed reproachfully in her head as through a fog. This perverse, irresistible temptation was setting her up for seven kinds of torment, Toima was certain, and shuddered.
Eighteen steps in all, and she came to a small landing and another door, notched like the last. She pulled at the notch, but the door stayed closed. Harder the invader tugged. No movement. Toima kicked the door in anger, then stopped as fear and shame took over.
She studied the door. Beside the notch was a strange design: three strips of metal across a black panel, as wide as her thumb. Toima traced the strips with a fingernail, then rubbed at the surface with the pad of her thumb.
Within the door, something clicked. Some combination of Toima’s thumbprint and pulse had fooled the decrepit scanner, which could summon just enough power to unlock the door one final time. Toima waited a moment, then pulled once more at the notch. The door slid open easily.
A noise began—a muffled murmur that sounded like a gravelly woman’s voice beneath water or thick blankets. Toima’s skin went cold, and she bit her tongue till it bled to keep from screaming. The warm, metallic taste filled her mouth, and her throat would not work to swallow. She choked and coughed. In a moment, the garbled voice ceased, as the synthesized message of welcome stored within the house’s lower circuits played out. Nothing more happened. Toima calmed, and stepped across the threshold into the house.
It was white and blue and pale yellow within. The floors were of a strange, creamy wood; the walls and ceiling curved and flowed like ripples in milk. Curtains and piles of frozen crystal broke through surfaces. Three tan leather couches arced around an impossibly fragile tangle of spiraling glass and copper. Toima tiptoed around them and down a short hall, clutching the water-pot’s coarseness to her like a friend in the midst of an alien world. At the end of the hall was one of the oval windows visible from outside. It faced east over the treetops, giving a view of rolling blue hills beyond. A bench of strange black material, smooth as glass but warm to the touch, was placed beneath the window. She dragged her fingertips over its surface, thrilling at the thought that a god had sat there.
She continued around the house, peering into each room. In one, she discovered a large, deep bed between two statues of a naked man and woman. The bed was made of some soft, silken material that gave into pressure so deliciously that Toima knew she would not rise out of it if she laid down. Gauzy curtains of pink and gold hung down around the bed, cocooning and obscuring the room.
Another room contained a padded black chair, slightly reclined. Around it stood several conglomerations of metal cylinders and many-jointed arms that leaned ominously over the chair. The walls were lined with cabinets and more of the black glass panels. Something about the room felt creepy and unnatural, and Toima stepped away from it gingerly, as if fleeing an ugly odor.
Then she came to a dark semicircular room, lit only by the diffuse light of the hallway. Within it were cushioned chairs facing a single wall of opaque glass. Along the curved wall ran a low shelf, on which various objects were placed. Toima walked along the shelf, examining them. There were strange knobbed and flattened forms of smooth material, accented with metal and glass. Some had evident handles; Toima wondered if they were weapons or magical devices. None of them betrayed their use obviously. She found a flat rectangular object, a little longer than her hand, on the end of the shelf, and picked it up cautiously. It was heavier than she expected from its appearance. One side was made of black glass; the other of metal, with some strange symbols etched into the surface. She turned it to look into the glass. At one edge was an indented circle with a small picture of a box on it. She fingered this, then pressed it.
Silently, the glass began to glow, dim at first, then brightening to a whiteness that dissolved into an image of a flower. Toima, transfixed, cradled the rectangle in her hands. The flower shone with the light passing through the glass. She touched the surface gently. At several points on the glass, the flower was obscured by small, colorful pictures. She tapped one; the image behind the glass changed to show several boxes and many rows of symbols. Tap, tap. The boxes flipped and expanded. She pressed the indented circle again, and the flower returned. Toima tapped another of the colored things. More boxes, with a few images of geometric designs and distorted humans.
Then the music began. There was a beating and thumping at first, coupled with sounds like incredible flutes and horns. The rhythm was utterly alien to one who had heard only the drummed war-songs in the dust of the village, or the simple melodies plucked out on the orp by a chanting poiyeet at night in a smoky, claustrophobic eating-hall. This thumping made her body want to shake in unfamiliar ways. A voice, vaguely human, appeared within the clamor and began to murmur and wail in a language Toima had never heard.
Something about the music was wrong, Toima recognized. It caught at her heart and limbs in a seductive yet uncomfortable manner. This music was for the gods, not humans, though there was a human voice in the midst. At last, the song dwindled into silence, and Toima tapped at the glass surface to change its appearance.
The image changed again. Two men appeared behind the glass, and Toima immediately knew something was amiss with them. They wore strange, shining garments that fit their bodies tightly, and were smiling at Toima. They were perfectly still. For a moment, she feared that they could see her, and that she was discovered. But they did not move; their chests showed no sign of breath. They were standing in front of a lake or pond, and Toima realized that the ripples on its surface were likewise motionless. An eerie cold settled over her.
“Let them free!” she cried. “Don’t hold them like that!” This had to be a god’s magic. Where were those men? What had they done to be so punished? She scrutinized them. One had a strange metallic device mounted above his right eye; another had several tiny glowing lights in his forehead. Both wore thin black belts with various knobs and buttons on them. The men were very handsome. Too handsome, in fact; their bodies were perfect in every respect, from the proportions of their torsos to the lines in their faces. Toima stared into their eyes. There was neither death nor life in them.
And she knew in her bones: she was looking at the gods. Somehow, they had captured an image of themselves before they disappeared, and placed it within this rectangle. She touched the glass and rubbed it. The image changed to show a male and female god walking beside a lake. Rub. Another image—several gods sitting together, laughing. Rub. Four gods dressed in strange, flowing raiment, accompanied by a bizarre, three-legged metal creature. The gods looked happy.
They were gods, and yet they were human, too. Toima heard her mother’s voice in her head. The gods tempted humankind, offering us the means to become like them. Our ancestors were wise… they refused temptation. The gods had not. They had plunged into the seas of temptation, seeking perfection of body, pleasure, and knowledge. And then they had vanished.
She put down the slab of glass and metal. After a little while, the light behind the glass went out, and it was again an inert object. It’s just a relic, now, Toima thought. She left the room, retrieving her water-pot, and went out into the bright hallway. Now she knew who had made the house, and she did not wish to remain. A hint of them imbued the place: something neither alive nor dead, grasping desperately, hopelessly, at perfection. The cleanliness of the house, so different from her own soiled, primitive home, suddenly angered her. She grabbed a little twisting piece of metal that stood on a tripod, and smashed it into the wall, creating a jagged black tear in the white paint. How dare we worship you? How dare you demand worship? she screamed in the confines of her mind. Perversion!
Then she looked at the water-pot. It too was ugly: the emblem of people who had been crushed by the myth of these perfect gods. She splintered it to shards with a swipe of her club.
Before her was a shattered window. That’s the one those boys broke. They were right, she thought, and went to it. Outside, she could glimpse her village a mile away: a conglomeration of thatched huts fizzling in the humid heat. Something was burning there. A plume of dark smoke spiraled peacefully into the air, drifting westward on a sluggish breeze. She should be right above the door to the house. She tossed her club out the window into a bush below, then waited to see if anyone would appear to investigate the disturbance. No one came, so she was alone.
She hoisted herself over the edge of the window, avoiding the jagged edges of broken glass jutting from the frame, then dropped to the ground many feet below. She dusted herself off, looked around, and walked away from the house.
I’ll say I tripped, and the pot hit a stone and broke, she thought, and buried her memories deep.