The paper primrose
She's six and new to this foreign city. She's taken to a pizzeria. A boy her age, sitting at the next table, spots her. He fidgets, leaves the restaurant, returns, and whispers at his father, who arranges a paper napkin into a white primrose. Shyly, he shuffles toward her table and gives the flower. Equally shyly, she accepts.
In response, she makes a drawing of a decidedly feminine ladybug (eyelashes, ruby lips), signs it and has it delivered. The boy's parents accept delightedly.
Both parties leave separately, and she's left standing pensively at the bus stop, waiting.
He loathes the notice next to the milky, opaque glass doors that quotes an airport by-law prohibiting access to the luggage pick-up area. The doors continuously slide open to reveal all kinds of people, none of them her. Some cast around the anxious look of the first-time visitor; some smile broadly, back on home turf. Some run and jump into the embraces of spouses or lovers; others solemnly shake the hand of their business escort in suit and tie.
His stomach gets more painful as time goes by, until the door finally opens to reveal her, and all is well.
In her absence, winter transformed into spring. Back when he'd dropped her off at the airport, he'd walked home in a harsh, cold wind. Now, he can see from his office window how the poplars, bending as fresh blasts of wind hit them, bask in a bright sun, while large clouds race through the sky. Nature is wide awake.
But it's pointless to try to tell her about this over the phone. There are too many practicalites to communicate.
He'll just have to hope that things will be as vivid when she returns, and that they will find time then.
Bad Luck Chuck
'I was there', Chuck says hoarsely. 'I was in the middle of the insanity. But I myself, I wasn't insane.' He swallows. 'I went in sane and I came out sane. My arm may have been blown to bits, but my mind is still in one piece. It's been thirty-five years now, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. My whole platoon--' He stops. There are indistinct shouts from the audience. He raises his stump, smooth and pointy as if there has never been a hand attached to it.
Read my new war story, "Bad Luck Chuck". Watch it, there's a nasty twist at the end.
When God appeared to the world, it was a pretty average day. There had been no natural disasters of note that day, and the weather throughout the planet had been mild and decent. No great injustices occurred, and even the wars that were going on all across the globe seemed to abate somewhat. In short, there was nothing that could have prompted God's arrival.
But arrive He did. Up in the sky, from one second to the next, suddenly, there was God. To some, He appeared in the form of a wise old man in robes, with a flowing beard; to others, He only appeared as a booming voice from high up above. But atheists and believers alike were suddenly confronted with the knowledge that whatever appeared to them was, in fact, really God, and not an alien or a new weapon from the Russians. If you were to ask them how they knew this, they would say they couldn't say; they just knew it. Probably, God had something to do with it.
The result was massive panic. Many people, regardless of their professed belief (or lack thereof), were convinced that Judgement Day had come. A lot of them, eaten up by their secret sins, committed suicide on that day, a pretty pointless thing to do, since God is with you in the afterlife as well as in this life. Others felt that they'd been sinning enough to go to Hell already, and, since there was no way back anyway, started on a binge, plundering, raping and murdering as much as they could. Still others, who were still committing the sin of pride, felt that this special visit vindicated their particular interpretation of God and preached to whoever would hear them that God would soon invite them to sit by His side.
Finally, as time passed and it began to dawn on people that God didn't seem to be doing anything apocalyptic, someone called up to the heavens: 'God, why have You come to earth?' And God replied, 'Oh, don't mind Me. I'm just observing. Please, go about your business.' And (to those who saw Him) He sat back contentedly and said nothing else.
This statement created even greater confusion. If God had not come for some kind of reckoning, what had He come for? And slowly, people dared to believe that the opposite was the case. After all, God was benevolent and kind, and had been in the past. God, everybody concluded, was here to help us out. After all, these were particularly troubled times, were they not? So, high representatives of the world's major religions convened and decided to formulate a prayer that, for the first time, they could say to God face to face. They addressed God in the desert. This was unnecessary, since God was everywhere and could have heard them just as well from Times Square or from a tropical island.
'O God,' they called out in unison, 'we are grateful and ecstatic about the fact that You have decided to visit us. We know that You are good and great, and we plead You to be merciful to us lowly mortals. Humanity is suffering; there is famine, war, disease, and death. Please, Lord, please help us find the way to end these troubles.'
God's reply was immediate. 'I hear and understand what you said. The matters you address are duly noted and under My consideration.' And He was silent again.
'But God,' one of the religious leaders shouted, 'is there anything we're doing wrong? Is this suffering a result of our sins and indiscretions?'
'Well,' God said, 'let's just say it wouldn't hurt to be nice.'
The congregation was baffled.
Weeks passed in which God, showing no sign of an emotional response to whatever humanity did, sat in the sky and watched the world go by. Some, in praise of His undeniable existence, had begun to build humongous places of worship: temples and cathedrals the likes of which had never been seen before. Others, who reasoned on a more personal level, became as selfless and virtuous as Jesus Christ himself, living a life of abstinence and giving away their possessions. Still others pretended that this huge figure in the heavens simply wasn't there and went about their daily business as if nothing had happened.
But regardless of what people did, God seemed to do nothing. Of course, it was impossible to tell whether He had had a hand in this hurricane killing several dozen people off the coast of Florida (who called out His name while drawing their last breaths), or of the miraculous rescue of a little girl trapped in a well (whose family thanked Him abundantly). He was God, after all, and could have done all of this without showing it.
Then, a former atheist, who was more than a little off his rocker, had the guts to look up at God and ask him, 'God, why is it that You let suffering happen? So many people die before their time and senselessly. Some of us exploit other ones. You are here now, why don't You do something about it?'
'What do you mean, I'm here now?' God responded. 'Do you mean to say that I haven't always been here?'
'That only makes it worse,' the ex-atheist said, trying to hide his deadly fear (which isn't easy when you're talking face to face to an omniscient being). 'You could have done something about all of this ages ago, and You didn't. Why not?'
'My son', God said, with a kind smile on his face, 'The answer to that question lies beyond human conception. I move in ways that are mysterious to you but that, believe you Me, make a lot of sense in the big scheme of things. I know it doesn't seem nice, but that's just the way things are; I can't explain it any clearer. Not to you, anyway.'
God's response didn't make the former atheist happy, and he wasn't the only one. If it had been possible for him and those like him to keep secrets from God, no doubt they would have done it. But as things stood, they conversed in public.
'All right,' said one, 'so God exists, we know that. That doesn't mean we have to like him.'
God looked on without commenting.
'That's right', said another cautiously. 'God's omnipotent, right? He could prevent all this horrible stuff from happening but he doesn't! There's only one conclusion possible...'
They all huddled altogether, pretending to themselves that God couldn't hear them.
'God is evil,' someone dared to say. 'Yes, he's powerful and all-knowing and so on and so forth, but he isn't a good guy. And evil', he concluded, trembling, 'must be stopped.'
Over the months that followed, this small group succeeded in mobilizing a great number of people, most of them atheists or dejected believers who were disappointed that God wasn't delivering on his promise. Together, they convened, planned, plotted, designed, tinkered and finally came up with the most powerful weapon mankind had ever produced. Since the group had been working in secret, the unveiling of this humongous rocket, an event broadcast on TV throughout the world, was an enormous surprise and shock to everyone. Everyone, that is, except for God, of course, who had known all along what was going on. He looked on with some amusement as the members of the group, sweating and looking nervously toward the heavens, commenced the countdown. With a huge noise, the projectile was launched. Soaring higher and higher, the missile roared toward the figure of God. As it was about to reach Him, God raised an eyebrow –and the weapon evaporated in a small wisp of smoke.
A look of immense terror struck across the faces of the members of the secret society, some of them actually dropping dead of shock on the spot. Several others went insane and would wander the face of the planet, rambling incoherently, for the rest of their lives. Still others cried in furious impotence, the way a child cries when its mother forces it to do some unpleasant chore. And the rest of the world remained in silent awe, more than ever convinced of God's infinite omnipotence. In the aftermath of this attack, numerous world leaders convened to discuss the grave problem of anti-Deist terrorism that had suddenly emerged. They concluded that even the minutest risk of anything bad happening to God must be countered from the start, and they started a crusade against God-hating persons, branding as potentially dangerous all those who had been atheists before God's appearance. Millions died in the persecutions of the following decades, and open resistance against God became a great taboo. After some time, some people began to question the morality of this approach. They'd ask God, if they didn't know in advance He'd say that He couldn't really answer that question. But eventually, the regimes became less strict, God was left alone and things returned to normal. Normal, that is, except for the presence of God.
Years passed. New generations were born, familiar with the image of God in the sky. When asked about them, their parents would say, 'Oh, that's just God. He knows everything.' And the grandparents and parents died, leaving, eventually, only persons who had known of God's presence all their lives. And as these people grew older, their interest in God faded. Everybody would greet Him from time to time. Often, this happened when they were on a lonely walk, with only God for company. And God would always kindly greet the walker in return. But that was about it. People knew that they had to live their lives regardless of God being in the sky. And finally, people simply forgot He was there. Or rather, they regarded Him as part of the landscape, such as a mountain, an ocean, or the stars. And even though God would remain in the sky for the rest of the planet's lifetime, he eventually stopped speaking altogether, and just sat there, usually in a frozen, seemingly meditative state.