The people of Ipu needed a god.
Of course they already had one. His name was Kuromasai, and he had ended three droughts, cured seven plagues, and defended them from an army of Heccan raiders. But he was also old, and each morning when he appeared for his offering of praise, he had grown a little bit fainter. Soon he would disappear completely, and what is a city without a god?
So the seven Elders of Ipu met to discuss the matter. It had been over two hundred years since they had needed a new god, and though the scrolls said that the Iputians had once made their own, the method was lost.
“The Nimbagi seek their gods in the desert,” said the Second Eldest.
“Yes, and their gods smite them for the least offense,” said the Fourth Eldest.
“The Sornese gods last millennia,” said the Fifth Eldest.
“But what do they ever do?” asked the Third Eldest. “Sit on a pillar and give them ethical advice. That’s not our kind of god.”
Indeed it was not. Theirs were not the leather tents and warrior ways of the Nimbagi, nor the marble temples of the Sornese and their pursuit of virtue. Ipu was a small city of wood and sandstone, and its people were practical and loving; and they prided themselves that their gods protected and loved them.
The solution was obvious. “We must purchase a god from Tsubarime’s factory,” said the Eldest. “Nothing else will do.”
They consulted the oracle, and she told them to send the three sons of the Seventh Eldest. So the Elders gave them advice and a map, along with a diamond, a bag of gold, and a chicken’s tooth. With the faded blessing of Kuromasai they set out, and they walked all day until at sunset they made camp on the shore of the Commotionless Sea, which lies still across half the world.
The next morning they gazed at the water, dazzled golden by the rising sun, which they would have to cross; for Tsubarime’s factory lay beyond the curved horizon, at the eastern end of the world.
“Stupid oracle,” said the eldest son.
“But just think of how we’ll help our city,” said the youngest.
The eldest son snorted. “By walking halfway across the world!” He turned to the middle son. “Come on, don’t you think this quest is crazy?”
The middle son smiled and shrugged.
“Hell,” muttered the eldest son, wading into the clear water.
The youngest son followed him. “Dulce et decorum est.”
It was easy going, for the Commotionless Sea is never more than knee-deep and its bed is of sand and rounded pebbles. So they walked eastwards all day, until the land was gone and they waded through a circular infinity of blue, until sunset turned the water silver and gold and left it darkest cobalt. And still they kept walking deep into the night, for they could not lie down without drowning.
“Damn water,” said the eldest son.
“It’s nothing to what our people will bear if we don’t bring a god back quickly,” said the youngest son.
“There are fish sniffing my toes,” said the middle son.
Suddenly a mighty wind buffeted them—though the water barely rippled—and a great serpent with three horns and a pearl on its forehead descended from the sky. It circled them three times and then hovered before them, its iridescent scales gleaming in the moonlight.
“I am the great serpent ferryman of the west,” it said. “I bear travelers across the Commotionless Sea. Would you care to avail yourselves of my services?”
“Gladly,” said the eldest son, leaping onto the serpent’s back.
“What of my fee?” asked the serpent.
“Do you take gold?” asked the eldest, raising the bag.
“Certainly,” said the serpent.
“But if you give it the gold, how shall we pay for our god?” demanded the youngest.
“Easy,” said the eldest. “I still have the diamond. Coming?”
Neither of his brothers moved, and after a few moments the serpent said, “In that case, we’ll be off. Good night.” With a flick of its tail, it rose into the air and bore the eldest son to the land of Jorongheer, where it devoured him and took both gold and diamond. Serpents are not the most honest of creatures.
Meanwhile the two remaining sons, left with nothing but each other and the chicken’s tooth, began to walk again. When the eastern edge of the sky had just begun to pale, the youngest son gave a shout and fell forward into the water. His brother hauled him up and asked, “What happened?”
“I tripped,” said the youngest son. “Look.” He pointed down, and there on the sandy bottom of the sea lay a girl clothed all in white, her black hair floating about her.
At once they hauled her up and forced the water out of her, and after a few moments the girl coughed and came to life.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“We are from the city of Ipu,” said the middle son, “and we’re going to buy a god from Tsubarime’s factory.”
“But who are you?” asked the youngest son.
The girl looked at the water. “I don’t know. I am a child of the air; when I was born, my cruel mother stole my name and buried me in the sea.” She grasped the hands of the youngest son with a sudden smile. “Then you saved me! And now my powers are yours. I can bear one of you across the sea in a moment—but only one,” she said. “Sorry.”
The middle son looked at their hands. “You have the chicken’s tooth,” he said to his brother. “You go ahead.”
“We do need our god as soon as possible,” said the youngest son. “Can you catch up?”
“Of course,” said the middle son.
The girl drew the youngest son closer and they vanished, water sloshing in to fill the space where they had stood. The middle son watched the ripples a moment, and then waded onward. Sometimes he saw narrow ships skimming over the water, but only one ever came close to him when he waved, and that one glided through the water with no one on board. It paused a moment before him, its white silk sails flapping in the breeze, but he stepped back, and then it sailed away and was gone. So he walked, and he walked, and he had to sleep sitting up, and was often woken with a splash as he fell in. He had to catch gold-scaled fish in his hands, and eat them raw; and he did not die of thirst only because the water of the Commotionless Sea is sweet. Once he passed through a field of floating white flowers, and then he ate their petals, and for three days and three nights he waded through stingless jellyfish that hung glowing in the water; but he was too afraid to eat any of them.
And every night as he huddled upright in the water, he heard weeping, the soft weeping of a thousand hopeless voices; and he dreamed or saw countless shadowy figures walking towards him and behind him into the west.
Until at last a year later, he walked up out of the sea and collapsed on the beach, where he slept for a day. Then he woke up and saw before him a square building made of polished black glass. It looked glorious enough to birth gods, and sure enough, over the door was a sign that read TSUBARIME’S FACTORY.
“It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” he said, and walked into the factory lobby. Tsubarime stood waiting at a desk of green marble. She was tall and slender, and wore a tight little skirt and a buttoned gray jacket. Her lips and nails were painted crimson, her hair was curled short, and instead of eyes she had two black orbs.
“Good morning,” she said pleasantly. “Are you related to the last young man who came in here? He’s standing by the geraniums.” She pointed at a potted plant and the middle son saw his brother standing next to it, turned to a statue.
“What did he do wrong?” asked the middle son, because he had read a lot of stories and he knew these things were tricky.
“Nothing,” said Tsubarime. “He just didn’t want to wait a year, and time flies when you’re stone. Your goddess will be done in a few minutes, and then I’ll wake him up.”
“Did my other brother ever get here?” asked the middle son.
“No,” she said cheerfully. “Pity about him; never trust a serpent, I say. Would you like a tour of the factory?”
“All right,” said the middle son, and then, because he had been brought up correctly, “Thank you, ma’am.”
Tsubarime got up, put on a pair of small spectacles, and led him down a hallway. “I used to do the work by hand,” she said. “Now everything is automated. Look.”
They stood before a window, looking into the body of the factory. Muted through the glass came the whirr and clatter and hum of machinery. It was the hugest room that the middle son had ever seen, and it was filled with light gray machines and dark gray conveyor belts. Riding the belts were little lumps like raisins; the middle son looked closer and saw that they were people, naked and curled in on themselves.
“I didn’t know that gods had bodies,” he said.
“They start out with bodies,” said Tsubarime. “They don’t have them when they’re finished. It’s a long process—seven baths and seven burnings—I have to feed them nectar and anoint them with ambrosia.” She gestured to another window, and the middle son saw the people being fed into a great machine that roared and spat them out as piles of ash.
“But it kills them!” he said.
“Oh, the Seventh Fire? Don’t worry, the Seventh Washing restores them.” She led him to another window, where he saw water spurt out of a nozzle onto the piles of ash, turning each back into a curled body.
“That’s nearly the end,” she said. “Then there’s just the curing process, and they’re ready to come out. Look.”
This window showed the end of the conveyor belt. A mechanical arm lifted up each body, shook it straight, and lowered it into a coffin that was whisked away by another arm.
“We bury them for a thousand years,” she said. “It’s the only way to ensure a quality apotheosis. Luckily I can bend time a little, so it doesn’t take as long on the outside—just a year and a day.”
“But why?” asked the middle son. They were walking through a very long corridor now. “Washings and burnings and feedings I understand, but why must they be buried?”
“Because that’s what gods are made of,” said Tsubarime. “Pain and loss and loved denied. I take people who are alone and I kill them and revive them seven times, and I feed them on nectar and I bury them alive, and it all crinkles up inside them and gives them so much power. And all the time they’re alone, and they only want to love. You understand that in Ipu. A real god loves and protects. That’s all that’s left of them when I’m done, the love and protection they never got, and they give it back so they can stay real.”
At the end of a hallway was a little door of dented metal. Tsubarime fished a key out of her pocket and turned it in the lock three times. The door swung open to reveal utter darkness; Tsubarime strode through, the middle son trailing after. When she snapped her fingers a circle of light appeared around them, but outside it was so dark and the cold air was so still that he couldn’t tell if they were even in a room at all.
“Here we are,” she said, and handed him a shovel. “Don’t look baffled. If your brother could give a chicken tooth, you can dig a little dirt.”
He had barely dug a foot when he hit the coffin, and it only took him a few minutes to uncover the lid and wrest it off. Inside lay the girl that he and his brother had saved from the sea.
Tsubarime clapped her hands and the girl stood up. “Excellent,” she said. “Both of you follow me. You can leave the shovel.”
She opened another door. This one led into a gleaming white room where the girl sat on an operating table while Tsubarime examined her tongue and her teeth.
“Perfect condition,” she said at last. “There’s just one final step.” She plucked out the girl’s eyes and ate them. Then she put jade orbs into the sockets and led them all out into the lobby again.
As soon as they walked through the door, the youngest son woke up and bounded forward to meet them. “Our goddess!” he cried, and knelt before her.
“Guaranteed for at least one hundred seventy-five years, and could make it to three hundred if you’re careful,” said Tsubarime. “Just make sure that you give her a daily offering of praise and devotion from at least twelve people. Twenty is better, but if you can do twelve you’ll be fine.”
“Ipu takes pride in its gods,” said the youngest son. “You can depend on us. Anything else?”
“She’s still a deity in potential.” Tsubarime handed him a blue egg. “When you get back to Ipu, break this egg against her heart. Her body will turn to ether and she’ll be bound to your city for the rest of her life. But be careful—if anyone else breaks it, not only will she never be bound, but the one who broke the egg will die. Oh, and since you brought along your own deity material, I’ll toss in a magic carpet for free. It’ll get you back to Ipu in a week.”
“Brother,” said the middle son, “do you think she looks all right?”
The youngest son gave the new goddess a long look. “Well, actually,” he said, “she came from the sea. Shouldn’t her eyes be blue?”
“Easily fixed,” said Tsubarime, and switched the goddess’s jade eyes for sapphires. “Better?”
“Perfect,” said the youngest son, and gazed deep into the jewels. Then he led the goddess out of the factory, the magic carpet rolled up under his arm. But the middle son lingered.
“Can I ask you some questions?” he asked.
“You can,” said Tsubarime, “but I’ll only answer them if you give me an eye.”
The middle son almost said no, but then he thought about the people on the conveyor belt. “All right,” he said.
Tsubarime reached into his head like it was made of warm butter and pulled out an eye. It didn’t hurt, but it made a nasty squelching sound. She swallowed it in one gulp and said, “I’ll answer three. Fire away.”
“I heard weeping as I came here,” said the middle son. “What was it?”
“The souls in my factory turning into gods,” said Tsubarime.
“I saw a million shades walking west across the sea,” said the middle son. “Who were they?”
“Empty gods,” said Tsubarime. “When their power is all used up, they’re freed from their homes and they wander back to me. I have no use for them, so I tell them to look for the land of the dead. Who knows? They might sneak in.”
“How can I turn our goddess back to a child of the air?” he asked.
She squinted. “That’s a tricky one. It’s never been done. But if you could find her name, that might work.”
There was nothing more to say. Tsubarime put one of the jade orbs into his socket, and the middle son thanked her and started to leave. He was almost out the door when she grabbed him by the elbow.
“I like your pluck,” she said. “And you’re planning to destroy something, which pleases me too. So I’ll give you a freebie: Truth is stronger than magic. Always.”
Then she released him and he went down to the shore, discovering along the way that her nails had left six little white scars on his arm. His younger brother was waiting for him on the magic carpet, one arm around the goddess.
“Hop on,” he said. “We need to get home at once and save our people.”
The middle son got on, and the carpet began to fly across the sea. The goddess smiled at him, her sapphires glinting in the sunlight.
“My name is Siriumana,” she said. “It means ‘She who is beautiful as the dawn.’”
“I don’t think so,” the middle son whispered.
That night the goddess and the youngest son sat up late, talking and holding hands.
“You don’t remember, but I plucked you from the water,” said the youngest son. “I loved you even then.”
“I feel as if I have loved you for a thousand years,” said the goddess.
“When we come to the city, you will give up your life to protect it,” said the youngest son. “Our love is doomed. But I shall love you still all the days of my life, and when I die they will bury me in the temple and you will mourn me for centuries.”
“The mystery of love is bitter,” said the goddess, “and yet deathly sweet.”
The next morning, the middle son asked his brother, “Why did you give her to become a goddess? You could have bought one off the conveyor belt.”
“Our people must have the best,” said the youngest son. “A mass-produced god would not be nearly good enough. She alone was the perfect vessel. Besides, it was fated; I could feel it in my heart.”
They sped across the sea for five days. On the morning of the sixth day, the middle son said, “Have you ever dreamed about ghosts walking across the sea?”
“No,” said the youngest son. “My dreams are of my beloved alone.”
“I thought so,” said the middle son.
They reached land at sunset, and again they camped on the beach. Late at night, when his brother had fallen asleep, the middle son roused the goddess and led her aside.
“To spend my life with your brother, I would carve my heart out of my breast,” she said. “But I have a duty, and a fate.” She sighed in the way that the youngest son had taught her.
“What is your name?” asked the middle son.
“I told you. I am Siriumana.”
“That is what my brother called you. What is your name?”
“I am Etakaia. ‘She who brings blessings.’”
“That is what your name will be if you become our goddess. What is your real name?”
“I am alone,” she whispered.
“That is not your name either,” said the middle son.
The goddess began to tremble. “I have no name,” she said. “Anything that could be named was burnt and washed away, and I am only what they make me when they let me love. If I love them well enough, they will love me back. The darkness said so.”
“The darkness lied.” The middle son gripped her shoulders. “You must remember your name, when you were a child of the air.”
“There is no air in a grave,” she said. “And the darkness is all that I can see, even at noon.”
“Then I will give you one of my eyes,” said the middle son. He plucked out his jade eye and exchanged it for a sapphire.
The goddess was still for a long time. Then she whispered, “I still do not have a name,” and went to lie down beside the youngest son.
The next day, they mounted the carpet again and arrived at Ipu within an hour. At once they were greeted by a great throng of people, wringing their hands and sobbing for joy because they had a new goddess. The Elders shoved their way to the front of the crowd and fell on their knees before her.
“O honored one, awaited one, beloved one,” they cried. “Bless us. Bless us.” Their devotion flushed her cheeks, and she stepped forward.
“Wait,” said the middle son. “Do you want to be a goddess?”
She looked at him, blue and green.
“No,” she said. “But I have no name. There is nothing else for me.”
“You must find it,” said the middle son.
“How can you say such things?” cried the youngest son. “I love her; I want her to live even more than you do. But think of our people!”
“You want me to be free,” said the goddess to the middle son. “I would love you for that. If I were free.” She turned to the youngest. “Give me the egg.”
“I am thinking of our people!” shouted the middle son. “Is it right that we should live on suffering and death and the destruction of souls?”
“Love and protection come only at the price of suffering and death,” said the youngest son. “Everybody knows that.” He took out the egg, and drew the goddess close for a final kiss.
Only the goddess heard him, but the middle son said very quietly, “That is true. And truth is stronger than magic.”
Then he snatched the egg and crushed it.
As he fell, the goddess staggered back, and in her scream was the pain and betrayal of all the world. She dropped to her knees, and light flickered about her; then with another wail she vanished.
“Has she been bound?” asked the Sixth Eldest.
“So it would seem,” said the Eldest. “Her body is turned to ether.”
Then with hymns and praises, they carried the body of the middle son to the temple and laid him before the altar. As the maidens anointed him with frankincense and shrouded him in cloth of gold, the artists painted images of their new goddess on the screens and set new statues in the alcoves. The priests kept vigil all night with incense and chanting, and at dawn they began to sing the traditional praises.
That morning the Elders were met in council when they heard a great wailing arise in the city. They sent out servants to see what was the matter but they did not return, and they were about to go themselves when the doors burst open and the goddess entered the room. She was clothed all in black, and her black hair swirled about her, and in her arms she held the body of the middle son.
“Truth,” she said, “is stronger than magic.”
They saw that she had real eyes now, one green and one blue. Before those eyes they fell to their knees, but she did not let them look away until each one had seen himself reflected.
“I do not think you are ready for gods,” she said. “You do not even know what it means to be a hero.” Then she laid the body down in the center of the room. “He loved this place, so I shall leave him here, and his love will protect it. But I go to free my brothers and sisters at the factory.” She paused in the doorway and said without looking back, “There is no love without freedom. He knew that. And if you want love, you must pay the price yourself. He knew that too.”
There was a great noise of wind. When the trembling Elders dared look up, they saw only the youngest son standing pale-faced in the doorway.
* * * *
There are many stories about what happened afterwards in Ipu. None of them mention the Last Goddess or Tsubarime and her factory. If ghosts continued marching west or if they ceased, who can say? But one thing is said, as certainly as legends can be: The Seventh Eldest had no heirs, for his one remaining son left the city and began walking east.