A short story
by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero
Designer Deities. The artfully hand-painted wooden sign was stuck on chipped brick beside a wooden door newly painted purple. The door opened onto narrow stairs between the gnomish side-street shop fronts of Skin, Ink (tattoos and piercings) and Crystals and Sits (rocks and cushions).
On the day Deities opened, the Crystals owner, Krystal, offered customers a basket of muffins provided by her new upstairs neighbor, each with a toothpick bearing a paper flag: Designer Deities: See the Woman Upstairs. Skin owner Nick offered a tattoo of whatever the Woman designed for you, if visually representable, for 10 percent off.
“You gonna get yer own god, Nick? The Woman gonna give you a discount?” Bleeper peered down at his skinny bicep as Nick filled in the new, spiky, sky-blue star above the red and gold dragon he’d put there last month.
“Haven’t thought about it.” Nick focused on skin. “Might. You?”
“Nah. Who’d go and buy a god? I mean, you can get one for free anytime you wanta go sit in a church.”
“Not free. Think about it.”
“Huh.” Bleeper appeared to think about it. “You don’t hafta put nothin’ in the collection basket if you don’t want.”
“You owe a god your soul, Bleeper.”
“You believe in souls and that… stuff?”
“Gods do, evidently.” Nick set down his tools and disinfected the shoulder. “Looks good on you.”
“What? A god?”
“The star, Bleeper. That’ll be a hundred even.”
Bleeper paid with crumpled bills and took his tank top and tattoo out into the July sunshine.
Nick hung out the “I’m next door” sign and strolled up to Krystal’s. He ate a muffin and twiddled its toothpick flag, leaning in the shop’s doorway, enjoying the click of the bead strings stirred by the shop’s old ceiling fan, inhaling the incense. “Hey, look! Somebody’s going upstairs.”
Krystal trotted to the door just in time to see a pale girl with long, straw-colored hair and a nice vine tattoo around her ankle closing the purple door behind her. “Isn’t that Windblossom’s sister, the one visiting from—where is she from?”
“Kentucky? I don’t know. Yeah. I think her name’s Maryann.”
Krystal stood on the sidewalk. “Watch the shop for me, Nick? I, um, wonder. If I just went up there…”
But when she got up into the dark hall that separated the god shop from upstairs storage rooms, she found a note on the Deities door saying to come back in an hour and/or sign up for an appointment on the large calendar next to the door with a pencil on a string. Two names were already there for the next day: Susanna O and Ghost Rider. Krystal pressed her ear to the door but heard only simple harp music.
Back in her shop, Krystal sat down with a customer who wanted a pinkish beach pebble made into a bracelet, and Nick went back to his own place, pocketing the muffin flag. Both often leaned out their doors, and both happened to do so when Maryann came willowing out the purple door with a soft, meditative smile.
She saw them and twirled on the spot so that her long hair and gauzy skirt swirled around her. “It’s… it’s wonderful,” she sighed. “It’s… elevating. Krystal, can you put this in a pendant for me?” Maryann held out a long, clear, quartz crystal shimmering in the sun. Krystal recognized it as one she’d sold last week to the Deities woman, Jen Batiste.
Nick stepped up to her. “That’s your, um, god?”
“Goddess. And no, of course not!” Maryanne tossed her hair back. “A god could not be confined in a piece of rock! This holds the sound from when I sang her name for the first time as she came into being! It’s like, you know, every vibration is preserved in the rocks of the Earth forever. This is just to remind me of her. A touchstone.”
Krystal peered into Maryann’s palm. “Um, sure. Come on in. You, like, want a cap or a wire wrap? Come look and get some ideas.”
Nick shrugged and went back to his shop. Maryann left about an hour later with her goddess crystal nestled in a silver wire vine on a silver chain. Minutes later, the Woman came out the door and set a blank signboard leaning against the wall on a plastic tarp. She took out a jar of wine-dark paint and in a short time had a new sign drying in the sun:
fully accordant with
First Commandment rights.
they cannot come before
any other god.
Krystal admired the graceful lettering, done so free-handedly. “Pretty, Jen!”
Nick mused over the wording. “So, you’re trying to do what here?”
Jen grinned. “Just setting minds at ease. I expect visits from pastors and church ladies. Want to let them know I’m no competition. This’ll hang just inside my door, where they’ll hesitate.”
“Huh. Think they’ll believe you?” Nick shook his head.
“Their belief is nobody’s business but their own.”
Nick laughed. “Unless they make it yours, right? Good business!”
Jen stood up. She was tall and tan, or perhaps of African-American ancestry, or Mediterranean, or Indian… she didn’t fit into any ethnic niche. She had long, curly black hair and green eyes, and was long-legged under a slim sleeveless dress of some soft, un-dyed weave.
“Even then, it’s their belief, not mine. Always their own.”
Nick’s brow creased. “So how does that work?”
Jen smiled. “I ask. Sometimes I have to ask a lot to get at the core of it, what’s really in there, what someone really holds deep and acts on—which is not always what they think. Like, for instance, I ask whether they want a god to make them feel good or feel guilty.”
Nick’s head came up like a startled deer’s. “That’s a choice?”
Krystal grinned. “How about one to make my boyfriend feel guilty?”
Jen looked very serious and very kind. “My deities are highly local. They work only on you, nobody else.”
“So…” Nick stuck his hands in his back pockets. “You can’t make a god to create world peace, or make someone fall in love with you, or stop global warming, or make someone famous buy a million-dollar tattoo? What good is a god that can’t do that?”
“Come up and find out.” Jen grinned at him.
But before he could say yes, no, or maybe later, a woman walked up wearing a tan raincoat with the hood up, on this sunny July day. All Nick could see of her was her clenched hands and her legs in gray hose and what he thought of as lawyer shoes, dressy black leather with sensible heels. Nick had no shoe fetish, but he noticed things. Details about his customers gave him an edge in pleasing them with his images. The hooded woman didn’t speak or look around, but went straight to the purple door, opened it, and went up.
Jen shrugged. “Guess I’d better go meet my new client.”
Nick sat on the sun-faded bench outside his shop. When Ms Raincoat left, she walked briskly to the corner, gazing at what looked like a coin in her hand. She went to jam it hastily into her pocket when the light changed, but it slipped away and rolled back down the sidewalk, headed for the gutter and its storm drain. Nick lunged up and grabbed it. It looked very old, crudely minted, with what looked like Latin above the unrecognizable face.
The raincoat woman snatched it from his hand. “That’s mine!”
“Yes, Ma’am. I wanted to catch it before—”
She whirled away up toward Main, her heels tock-tocking with considerable authority.
“Huh. Wonder what that god does.”
Nick thought he was talking to himself, so he jumped when Jen answered from beside him. “More than she expects, I’ll bet.” He hadn’t heard her come out the door. “Better than she expects, too. She’s better than she thinks.”
“So… “ Nick wanted to ask about things like “better” and “more,” but couldn’t quite think how to do it. “So, what do you charge for a god?”
“Sliding scale. Depends.”
Jen seemed perfectly at ease standing on the sidewalk beside him, watching sparrows fluttering as they arrived at their messy nests up under the old eaves. Silence stretched. Nick fidgeted. “Um. So, would you like some ice cream? I’m going for some. They’ve got really good pistachio.”
The next day, Nick watched a red-haired teenager in a denim miniskirt and then a burly biker carrying black leather slung over his shoulder go in the purple door and come out an hour later. The girl was singing something that sounded medieval and the biker was tossing what looked like a small chunk of melted-then-hardened metal up and down, catching it perfectly every toss.
For the rest of the week, Nick and Krystal speculated about the two or three people per day who went in the purple door and came out variously smiling, frowning, gliding, or striding away. Late on Friday afternoon, after most businesses had closed, a nervous-looking middle-aged couple hesitated outside the door, reading the simple sign and touching the letters, but then they walked away. The street seemed very quiet.
“Nick.” The voice floated from above. Jen’s face peered down from a small window that Nick had never seen opened.
He closed his shop, opened the purple door, and went up into the dim stairwell.
It seemed to take a very long time to get up the steps. There were a lot more than he thought there would be. At the top, a skylight he hadn’t known was there let down enough light to see the door where Jen was standing. She beckoned him in.
The moment he crossed the threshold, he heard a soft chanting—not church chant, not oriental ohm-ing, not anything he quite recognized, maybe one voice, maybe more, not even maybe human voices, maybe more like distant trumpets with words in them, but not words he knew. He looked for the sound system, but didn’t see it. The chanting seemed timed to his breath, to twine around in his center, to ask questions that he answered without knowing what they were.
He stood in a short hall, noticing that Jen had hung up her “minor deities” sign. The chanting was unutterably beautiful and immeasurably perplexing.
After an un-guessable time, he stepped forward into a room that seemed both empty and filled, both narrow and wide, that seemed to shift corners and colors and contours when he looked back and forth, as if he had forgotten what it looked like by the time he looked back. The walls were white. The walls were blue. The walls were a warm flame-orange. There were windows everywhere. There was only a skylight high above. There were candles. No, torches. No, thousands of fireflies. No, stars. No, a wide fireplace.
Drugs. Must be drugs in the air, Nick thought. Kinda nice. Yeah. No. He felt clear and sober. Awake.
A window like a wheel rotated in front of him. In stained glass, the images at the four cardinal points were a crown with scepter, a sword with shield, a harp rising from flame, an apron beside a bowl.
Nick felt himself on a throne, his head crowned in light, power like a bolt of lightning in his hand, thousands of bright souls before him, chanting beyond the fire that burned in a stone circle. But he could not breathe.
Out of the fire reached a muscled arm of red-hot iron. It held a sword by the blade, hilt toward Nick, that glowed white-hot, the metal glory of trumpets sounding, shining. Yes! He knew it for his own. With this, he could make right in the world. But his hand fled from its heat and would not grasp.
He stood inside the fire with a golden harp in his arms, the chant arising more beautiful than words from its strings, flowing into lines of ink, flowers on flesh, art of the heart. Yes! That was Nick, truly a maker, an artist. But he was so thirsty!
The apron lay folded across his arm, and the clay bowl, just the size of his two hands, brimmed with clear water. He poured it out into a cup held by a naked child sitting in the ashes, whose tears had long dried into tracks on her dusty face, and he thirsted no more. Here I am, he said.
He stood in Jen’s upper room, the walls white, the only sounds the gentle purr of tires on Main Street and the twittering of sparrows. The window showed the warm light of near-sunset. In his hands rested the clay bowl.
After a while more of silence, Nick almost whispered, “He’s… he’s not in the bowl.”
“Um… what’s his name?”
“Up to you.”
“Me?” Nick gazed into the bowl. “This is… this sounds so awful… um… but his name is Nick.”
“And he’s not a god.”
“I’m satisfied anyway. How much do I owe you?”
“Already paid for.”
Her hand was gentle on his shoulder as she guided him out the door.
When he got to the street, he stood for a while, enjoying how the red sun made flame shapes between branches of the young tree shadows across the street. He went in his shop. A woman came in, wearing black lawyer shoes, but no raincoat. “I want to talk to you,” she said.
Nick cradled the bowl in one hand. He took the gallon jug from his small refrigerator and poured the bowl full.
“Would you like some water?”
She scowled. “What makes you think I’m thirsty?” A brief track of ash-black mascara traced down from the corner of one eye like a dried tear.
“I just… look, I have this bowl…"
Copyright © 2011 by Cheryl Wood Ruggiero
Story image: Still life with tibetian singing bowl and plums © Daria Kozlova
In recent years, I’ve begun to see no boundary dividing divine from material. I was reading an interview with author Neil Gaiman (American Gods), in which he said that if he were not writing he’d like to design religions. That set off the awakening in my core that told me a story was rising, and I thought, why not go one better and design deities? I knew the perfect side street in my hometown for the deities shop, and from that place, this story unrolled almost like a dream.
Cheryl Wood Ruggiero writes and teaches in the mountains of southwestern Virginia. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in CALYX, South Carolina Review, Wolf Moon Journal, Pebble Lake Review, The 2River View, The Potomac, The Three-Lobed Burning Eye, Floyd County Moonshine, Abyss & Apex, Potion, and The Editorial Eye, among others; her poetry chapbook Old Woman at the Warm Spring is forthcoming in February 2011 from Finishing Line Press. She can be reached via email at email@example.com. (Photo by James G. Ruggiero)