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Great Mother, Great Father
Artwork by Dean Spencer
Great Mother, Great Father
    by William Saxton

The first chief of the Rapahoah Empire forced stranded time-travelers to use their technical skills to make his people great, setting his Empire on the path to build ships, airplanes and bombs, to spread the worship of the Great Mother and subdue first the rest of North America and then the world.

Two centuries later, Europe, Asia and Africa were independent again, no longer paying the tribute of sacrificial victims; but North America continued the blood sacrifices. To appease the Great Mother, certainly, but mostly to honor her wisdom. The Great Mother is too capricious to be appeased for long, as the city of Southport, bludgeoned by a hurricane and flooded with Mississippi water, had reason to know.

The day after the storm, Tzichem, an officer of the Southport Police Force, risked going out for supplies. He took his wife Dikayah and their baby boy with him. The city was in anarchy, and there was no way he was going to leave them at home alone.

In the flooded lot of a supermarket, they saw a crowd trying to break in.

"We aren't going into that," Tzichem told Dikayah. Too dangerous.

"We have to get something for Pio," Dikayah said. "We're down to the last jar of formula." Pio, the baby, cooed up at her from her shoulder harness. Her eyes glistened, and Tzichem . . . seeing her cry made Tzichem want to put his fist through a wall.

He turned away and scanned the crowd. "They'll either break in, in which case we'll follow, or else the company's salvagers will come." He sighed. "And we'll leave."

"Why would we leave?" she said. "You're a policeman. Tell them! Tell them you can help!"

"We'll see," he said, meaning, let's not argue.

Glass shattered in the storefront. The crowd surged into the supermarket.

"Let's go," Tzichem said. There'd be formula inside. There'd be clean water . . . they went as fast as they could in the knee-deep water: a slow walk.

As they came to the storefront, with other stragglers, Tzichem heard an engine.

A speedboat came into view. Store employees, soldiers in the livery of the nobleman who ran it, bristling with guns.

Tzichem and Dikayah changed course abruptly, away from the storefront, water swirling around their legs. Others jostled into them, trying to get clear of the path between the boat and the shattered storefront. Tzichem found himself and Dikayah directly in the boat's path.

He moved back with her, keeping his hands in plain view. The security force ignored him.

They put on gas masks. Oh, Great Mother, it wasn't just body armor; they were going to gas the building.

The soldiers fired something into the store.

People came boiling out. The fact that they could suggested that the gas wasn't lethal. Or maybe no one was willing to find out. The soldiers, too late, backed the boat away from the shattered storefront, letting the crowd escape.

A man slammed into Dikayah, knocking her over. Tzichem reached for her; she scrambled to right herself, grabbed onto the side of the soldier's boat --

"No!" Tzichem yelled --

He heard the gunfire. People screamed; Tzichem pulled Dikayah to him. The water was still brown, but now had a tinge of red.

The bullethole was in her head. Oh, Great Mother . . .

Pio was no longer in her arms.

He couldn't keep her upright and look for the baby. He couldn't . . . he let her go. He looked around. Looters were fleeing; cardboard boxes and plastic wrap floated in the muddy water -- but there was no bundle of white that would be Pio.

The boat moved to the edge of the lot, presumably to let the crowd disperse.

He still couldn't find Pio.

Then he saw something white, floating. He forced his way through the muddy water to get to it.

He was too late. Pio had taken a blow to the head -- maybe the boat, maybe a propeller. The hand of the Great Mother, whatever tool she used.

The crowd was mostly gone, and the soldiers were coming back in. Their lord would have his store back mostly intact.

Tzichem felt a wash of rage. Impotent rage: they'd shoot him if he approached. There was nothing he could do to them.

Or for Dikayah and Pio. He had brought them to their deaths. It was his fault. Oh, Dikayah, he thought, I'm so sorry, so sorry . . .

He couldn't stop his grieving, but he could take action despite it. He put on the shoulder harness and laid Pio in it. Then he took Dikayah's body and left. Caring for an empty shell when the soul was gone: showing the world his heresy. A wise man would be stoic. A wise man would know that death is part of life.

He couldn't carry them throughout the day. He found an abandoned apartment with only its windows shattered by the hurricane, and laid Dikayah's body on a clean bed with Pio in her arms. They looked so peaceful . . . he let the tears come, racking sobs that shook him.

He knew what the afterlife would be for them. The Mother would surely disdain them as victims and give them to her demons . . . oh, Great Mother, he prayed, don't let them suffer for my mistakes. Don't let them suffer. He knew the Mother would hold him in contempt for such a prayer; still he asked.

When the First Father came to the Great Mother's bedchamber, he knew nothing of the danger. The Mother's demons seized him and the Mother devoured him. "He will feed me," she said. "He is good for nothing else."

Heading out of the city -- there was nothing to stay for -- took him past the British consulate, its windows shattered and girders twisted by the Mother's fury. A pale-faced foreigner struggled with a shattered door. Tzichem kept going, through the knee-deep water.

Tzichem's right foot slipped, and went deep into a hole. He took in a mouthful of water; something pierced his foot, right through the shoe.

He struggled to free himself, but his foot was caught. He breathed water. He should be brave -- he shouldn't struggle -- he couldn't stop himself. His lungs felt about to burst.

Eventually he stopped struggling. It was a relief.

He felt something moving his foot, but he could no longer resist. Then someone was pulling him backward, arms gripping around his chest.

Somehow he was on a dry place, retching and coughing out water.

There was someone sitting beside him, looking over his bare foot. It was the pale man he'd just seen. They were in the consulate building, then. What was left of it.

The man saw Tzichem looking at him. "You're welcome," the man said wryly. It wasn't a European accent; the man was surely North American, a descendant of the time travelers. "Raiders," they called themselves, after something from their bloodless "football" games.

"How bad?" Tzichem said.

"The ankle's already starting to swell," the man said. "And you've got a hole almost through the foot. That's not good."

It certainly wasn't. The wound would almost certainly get infected. Tzichem looked out at the brown water covering the street. "'Water of life,'" he said. Like the water of the underworld, which both seethes with noisome life and kills those who fall into it.

The man snorted. "If that's what you want to call it," he said. "We'd better get this sterilized." He took out a bottle. "This is going to sting a little," he said gruffly.

If Tzichem could endure what had already happened, he could surely endure mere physical pain. He steeled himself, and let out no more than a grunt when the whiskey touched the wound.

Tzichem's foot was cleaned, bandaged and wrapped in a garbage bag, to keep out some of the dirty water.

The man's name was Ira; he looked to be about thirty. "You're not consulate staff," Tzichem said. Not with that accent.

"No," Ira said. "I'm a copier repairman. I contract here sometimes." He looked over the wound. "We've got to get you out of here."

"Why?" Ira didn't owe him anything.

"Tetanus, for one thing. You need treatment."

A good reason, to be sure. "I meant, why help me? You don't even know me," Tzichem said.

Ira sat back on his haunches and stared, so that Tzichem feared he was reconsidering whether to abandon him. If that happened Tzichem might well die. Not necessarily a bad thing.

"'The Lord delights in mercy,'" Ira said finally.

"What?"

"That's from one of the prophets. Our prophets, that is, the Jewish ones."

Tzichem lost interest. "Slave religion," he said.

"You're not upper class either," Ira said. "If you were, you'd have been evacuated before the hurricane." Ira pointed to the police insignia on Tzichem's uniform. "You're a policeman. Why weren't you evacuated?"

"They said the buses were full," Tzichem said through clenched teeth. And why were he and his family at the end of the list? Because he was of the Lassamatchee tribe, not native Rapahoahan. Tzichem was sure of it.

"The elite got out," Ira said, "and left you behind."

"'He who is indifferent to suffering, in himself, in others, and in the Mother: such a man can rule in life and beyond,'" Tzichem quoted. It was an ideal any wise man would follow. "You, on the other hand, will be in hell itself, because you are foolish."

"Jews don't believe in hell," Ira said. "At least I don't. Although I've seen enough here, I probably should."

Tzichem felt a pang of guilt for his own lack of ruthlessness. He shouldn't try to convince Ira. He should be using him. Weak, weak, weak.

"Let's see about getting you out of here," Ira said.

They went down to street level and walked in the water, Tzichem leaning on Ira some to take weight off his hurt foot. From Ira's expression, it must have been tiring for him as well. Tzichem said so.

"Forget about it," Ira said.

They walked on in silence. It was a mistake: it let Tzichem think about what had happened. He just wanted Dikayah and Pio back, and safe. Since he couldn't have that, he didn't care about anything else. They were in torment, and because of that, in his own way, so was he.

By noon they were out of the flood zone. They saw few people and spoke with none. They stopped whenever Tzichem needed a rest, which was often. A crutch Tzichem made from a downed tree limb helped.

As sunset drew near, they broke into an abandoned quadriplex house. All four families had left behind canned food; some had left some of that awful cola stuff the slave class, the Raiders, loved so much.

They ate in the kitchen, sitting on damp furniture covered with fine glass shards from the busted windows.

"What happened?" Ira said finally.

"What?"

"You're not just in pain because of your foot."

Tzichem tried to answer, and found that he couldn't.

"Just say it," Ira said. "It won't make it any more real."

So Tzichem said it. "My wife -- my son --"

His eyes welled up. He stood, tried to leave the room, but Ira stood as well, blocking him.

"Get out of the way," Tzichem said, gruffly.

"No," Ira said.

Tzichem tried to shove him aside, and put weight on the bad foot. It was like driving a spike in it all over again. He lost his balance, and Ira caught him, and . . . Tzichem stopped resisting. He sat back down and cried, regardless of what Ira -- a Raider, anyway -- would think of him.

Ira just waited. Eventually Tzichem stopped, and wiped his eyes and nose.

"What happened?" Ira said.

Tzichem told him.

Ira's eyes flashed. "I know I'm not supposed to have opinions on non-technical matters, being a Raider. But believe me, I do."

"'Suffering is part of the Mother's plan,'" Tzichem said, without any intent to argue. A Raider wouldn't understand anyway.

"I know all about the Mother's plan," Ira said dryly. "You should too. I see how you look; you're not Rapahoahan. What tribe? Chocktaw?"

"Lassamatchee," Tzichem said.

"What happened to your people, two centuries ago, when Rapahoah was expanding?" Ira asked. "To the Maukeegans? The Monacans, and the Cherokee? And how many of your relatives were sacrificed when they retired, because it was easier than paying their pensions?"

Only one. Ordinarily, Tzichem would have pointed out the spiritual value to the survivors. Now, without judgment, he just thought about his grandmother. She'd taught him the sacred stories, and though she warned him to be stern, she was always gentle with him. With everyone. And when her eyes were too weak for her to work in the factory, she was volunteered to bring divine favor to others by a week-long death. Those who are sacrificed in this life go on to be sacrificed eternally in the next. He'd stopped thinking about her, because it hurt too much.

He'd stopped thinking about Grandfather too. Grandfather wasn't sacrificed, but he died two months after Grandmother, pining for her. In eternity, surely, he'd still be pining.

Tzichem knew he shouldn't avoid thinking of them. To ignore unpleasant truth is idiocy.

"And as for my ancestors . . ." Ira's eyes glistened. "You know what happened to Joe Silverman." The leader of the time-traveling party that was captured. "I'm Ira Silverman. Every generation, all the way back to the time travelers' arrival, at least one of my ancestors was sacrificed."

Joe Silverman. Michelle Hayakawa. Stu Powell. Figures nearly as famous as the First Father, and for the same reason: naïveté. Silverman was tortured; Hayakawa was forcibly married to the chief; Powell's head was used in the sacred ball game.

"It doesn't have to be this way," Ira said.

Tzichem waved his arm out at the broken kitchen windows, and at the ruined city beyond.

Ira apparently understood him. "I know awful things happen in nature," he said. "But do we have to make it worse, in the way we treat each other?"

Grandmother never did. Dikayah never did. But they never bucked the system, either, built from the Great Mother's religion and the time travelers' wisdom, the prophets Adam Smith and Isaac Newton and Henry Ford. To buck the system you needed to believe in something else, like this Jew . . .

"You're not just a Raider," Tzichem said. "You're a rebel -- aren't you? You work for the British. Or someone."

"No," Ira said. "I'm just a survivor."

Tzichem didn't believe him -- but what did it matter? He clasped Ira's hand and pulled it to his heart. "What you are," Tzichem said, "is a good man." Good, like Grandmother.

Grandmother was good, and she'd been sacrificed. The good have so much to offer, in this world and beyond, through the suffering they do for the victors.

Ira was good like Grandmother. By all rights he should be sacrificed.

But Tzichem didn't want him to be, any more than he'd wanted it to happen to Grandmother. Maybe Tzichem was part Jew himself, or at least part Raider, in his heart. Maybe that was why the Mother had done this to him: to show him what a fool he was.

When the Second Father came to the bedchamber of the Great Mother, he was wiser than the First. He carried a spear, and told her, "If you harm me, I will pierce you." She swore an oath that she would not harm him that night. So when he lay down with her, and put down the spear, it was her demons that seized him. "He is more worthy than the First," the Mother said, and she used his remains to make the world.

Tzichem awoke in the night with cold chills.

It was too dark to look for aspirin, and he had no flashlight. He went to the closet, pulled out clothes, and piled them over the bed, then got under them. He didn't sleep; he was shivering too hard.

Ira looked him over the next morning, and reappeared with aspirin. "You need penicillin," Ira said, "but nobody here seems to have had any."

The aspirin helped with the chills. Tzichem cut his boot open so that he could get his swollen foot back in it.

"I feel ashamed, being dependent," Tzichem said. "I should be stronger."

"You can give to someone else later," Ira said. "You're a policeman, so you'll have plenty of opportunities. And then they can do the same . . . and if enough of us do, the Great Mother will be out of luck."

As if acts of charity could stop hurricanes, old age, and death.

The going was slower today. "But we may not be far from civilization," Ira said. "I can't believe they'll ban us from using the big limited-access highway that goes up to Arkansas. Maybe we can get transport. Do you have money?"

"It's wet," Tzichem said, "but they should still take it."

Along the way, he was awed by the effects of the Great Mother's rage. A bus, picked up and dropped on another, crushing both; an uprooted tree, thrown through the roof of a house. "She does what she likes," Tzichem observed.

Ira shrugged. "She doesn't seem to be very friendly."

"'Death causes life,'" Tzichem quoted. Grandmother liked to quote that one. "Even your people know that, with your environmental science."

"That doesn't mean I want to be the fertilizer," Ira said.

"Everyone will be," Tzichem said. Ira was, frankly, an idealistic fool. But Tzichem now felt about Ira as he would about family -- the great weakness of even the wise, it was said, since even the wise love their families.

Ira could do so much to make up for Tzichem's failings: Ira, sacrificed eternally like Grandmother, always suffering to make life better for the one who turned him in . . . the Great Mother would know, then, that Tzichem wasn't such a fool after all.

He was a fool, though: a fool to trust the nobility, which evacuated its children rather than sacrificing them to avert the storm, as had been done in days of old; a fool to let himself be so devastated by what the Mother did. A fool today, because he didn't want Ira hurt, couldn't bear to think of this good man suffering because of him. Like the First and Second Fathers, like every man, ultimately: a fool.

When the Great Father, the Third, came to the Great Mother's bedchamber, he was wiser than the First or the Second. He brought a shard of the Second Father's legbone, and held it to the Mother's neck through the night as they lay engaged, so that even her demons dared not intervene. But as morning came he fell asleep, and so he was killed as well.

The Great Mother was pleased at his wisdom and gave him a place of honor in death: ruling with her, a flaming glory in the skies. The sun.

Ira's face was reddish from exposure to the Great Father: sunburn, a malady reserved for the pale people.

It seemed their journey under the hot sun would never end. They rested often. Ira made Tzichem stay full of aspirin. "We can't afford to have you feverish," Ira said.

"I'm all right," Tzichem said. But he wondered how much farther he could travel.

And, eventually, they were at the highway.

Bus drivers stood outside their vehicles, holding signs with prices on them. There were soldiers on patrol, with rifles. Other buses and cars still moved north, away from Southport, and trucks and troop transports moved south.

Tzichem saw no bodies, but there were men in chains: looters, perhaps. Bound for the sacred ball game or the altar.

"Is this area under martial law?" he asked a soldier.

"Yes," the soldier said. He had a clipboard. "Your name?"

Tzichem gave it. When he gave his rank, they called his supervisor: Biachee, who'd left him in Southport. Who'd left Dikayah and Pio. Biachee, who was strong, as the Great Mother intended.

Showing hatred would gain Tzichem nothing. Tzichem pushed it away and gave Biachee his name and location.

He looked at Ira. He felt horrible doing this, so horrible . . . he took a deep breath and added, "I have captured a seditionist." His voice shook. "I believe he's spying for the British."

He turned and looked full into Ira's shocked face. To be a man of wisdom, one must face one's actions.

The fear he saw in Ira's face meant nothing: who wouldn't fear what they'd do to a suspected spy? The sadness was worse, because it wrenched Tzichem's gut, and it shouldn't have. He wished he could unsay the words.

He pushed that wish away.

Ira stared, his mouth open. "On the ground," a soldier ordered. Ira complied. The soldier cuffed him.

Tzichem wouldn't say he was sorry. The point was to not be sorry. The point was to never, never care, to prove to the Great Mother he was wise . . .

And if she was generous, Ira might turn out to be a major operative. Tzichem would be rewarded with a promotion and a pay increase. And -- he promised himself -- if he could, he'd take the best blessings of mortal life, another family . . . and this one, he wouldn't love so much.

No. He wouldn't be able to stop himself. There was a part of him that cared, a loving part that he couldn't destroy, try as he might. A part that would always cry for what he'd done to Ira. And for Dikayah and Pio. And Grandmother . . .

He turned away. The Mother could see his tear, but he didn't have to let the soldiers see it. They were young and wouldn't understand: the greatest sacrifice isn't not to love; it's to love, and to be cruel anyway.

Suddenly he knew: the Mother was well pleased.

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