The God Down the River
by J.P. Sullivan
Every seventh day we all went to worship a God that never answered, which struck me as
odd, given that a perfectly lively one lived just down the road. Why not ask him for help with our
"Because he's evil, is why," said the baker's boy. He looked at me like I was an idiot.
Chances are good that I was an idiot, but back then I figured I was the smartest person in the
world; children usually do, despite all evidence to the contrary.
"Evil how, exactly?" I figured it was important. "Nobody's ever seen him do anything."
But we all saw him, certainly, as much as the grown-ups tried to pretend he wasn't there.
That took some doing on their part. Our town wasn't long on distractions. No theater, no
music-hall, no train station; we were dimly aware of a king somewhere upriver, but on a good
year they didn't even bother collecting the taxes. There was only the land and the long wheat,
golden in summer and sometimes even in winter, such were the mildness of the days. The
bushlands are a warm country.
So when you stood in one of those flattened fields, it was hard to miss the Old God's
Mountain, looming by the side of the winding river. We called it a mountain, but this was mainly a
matter of contrast; I remember a year when surveyors came out from the capital and had a great
long argument with the mayor about whether it was tall enough to make the grade. The argument
got settled when the mayor gave the strangers money, after which they left awfully quickly. My
mother told me to forget I saw anything. This was not the first time I noticed the stubbornness of
our folk, but it was my introduction to the concept of bribes.
"So when we pray," I asked the priest, "Isn't that a bit like bribing God?"
"Entirely different," he said, his neck fat quivering. Our priest's chins were measured in
multiples. It made him ugly, but I liked him more for it. It made him feel honest.
"So then why do we bother with all the litanies and the novenas and the sevenday
services?" We were in the Temple. Angels and saints and an inscrutable pastel divinity peered
down at us from the ceiling. I studied the floor. It was my job to study the floor. I got paid nickels
by the hour to scrub it, on weekends.
"When you're young," said the priest, "You pray for what you want. When you get a bit
older, you pray in thanks for what you have." He laughed. "Just in case someone decides to take
I thought about that for a while, scrubbing a damp cloth over an especially uncooperative
speck of dirt. Eventually I heard the sound of laughter, outside. I raised my head and peered out
the window, towards the banks of the river. All I saw was the blue-white gleam of the sun shining
"That's the seventh time you've had a look," said the priest. "Are you expecting something
on the boat?"
I wrung out the washcloth, for what good it did. The water in the bucket had long ago
turned an unpleasant gray. "Something like that."
He picked up the bucket. "I'll finish up here. Heavens know I need the exercise."
I didn't need to be told twice. I tore out the door, barely remembering to speak a word of
thanks. The smell of summer earth was in the air, dusty, the grass yellowed by the heat. I passed
ten brick houses and the wide wooden awning of the alderman's store, then dodged one horse and
two farmers on the way.
You could forgive my hustle. The future was coming down the river. I meant to see it.
"You're late," said the baker's boy, whose name was Dian. He still wore his apron. Flour
dusted his hands.
"A whole ten seconds later than you," I said, shielding my eyes as I peered upriver. "It's
not here yet, is it?"
Dian shook his head. "Not yet."