I wrote this for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Contest this week (Ten Random Sentences). I chose this sentence for inspiration:
The river stole the gods.
It’s just around 900 words. Hope you enjoy!
Their land was a desert, so they prayed to their gods to bring water, for plants to grow, for animals to come out of hiding places between rocks so that they could spear them and eat. One more meal, one more oasis, one more night watching the stars and trying not to freeze.
That was all they asked.
Ada knew that it had not always been like this. The land used to be fertile, so many generations before her own that even the stories that told of it were eroding from the wear and tear of being passed down. There were old gods, old in the way that their people had lived enough years without needing their assistance that they forgotten how to call their names.
When Ada was younger, she would sulk in the shadows cast by the elders’ fire. One night she had heard them saying names she’d never heard them say when the rest of the tribe was around. It was only years later, when she understood that the springs had been rising past their normal levels and that the water tasted unfamiliar, that Ada understood that they were names of old gods, whose knowledge and guidance couldn’t be provided by their current deities.
The world was changing, away from the stories and gods Ada’s tribe currently held and prayed to, and if you hear the right whispers, toward the older times, and the older gods.
But as long as the change happened slowly, and the whispers were quiet, the only person who noticed was the girl who grew up learning to dance invisibly in the shadows while the rest of her generation danced like fire.
* * *
Desert people pray for water and consider their prayers answered with sudden summer rainstorms and shady oases after long days of travel.
When their gods’ answer is floods, new gods and new prayers are needed to survive.
The storm clouds came and everyone expected them to give a day of rain before they burned off in the summer heat. That second day saw rain was unusual.
On the third day their tents’ simple waterproofing with animal fat was not enough to hold off the storm. By the end of the first week, the tribe’s tents sat on the bank of a river, and by the end of the month Ada forgot what it was like for her skin to be anything but wet. And still it rained, and the river next to the camp widened, threatening to swallow them whole.
The river stole the gods.
A month and a half into the storm, one of the elders came out of his tent wearing a black robe no one had seen—no one’s grandparent’s had seen—and spoke of gods that could save their people.
The elders brought back the old gods and tossed aside their current deities. They were the leaders of the tribe and it was their job to save their people, and you pray to the god who will deliver you from harm, not the one that brings harm.
It was war. Some people would not abandon the gods that had watched over them, that had brought them safety and love and shelter. Others blamed their neighbor’s piety for the continuing storm: you do not pray to the god of water when your world is flooding.
After two months, the rain stopped. Summer’s heat had faded and the sun did not have the strength to suck dry the ground the way it once could. The river had stolen soil from other lands and brought it to Ada’s tribe. The sand of their homeland was now soil.
Green, bright fertile green—a color as foreign as another language to the desert people—appeared. Grasses, flowers, bushes with berries. Stories of the forgotten times from before the desert became their only hope of survival. Which plants are edible, which ones are poisonous?
And still it was war. For if the rain has stopped, then the people who were praying for water were clearly kneeling at the wrong altar. But never before had their been a concept of a “wrong altar,” or that their could be right gods and wrong gods. Difference of religion appeared in a world that had never before considered religion to be anything but a fact.
Hiding in the shadows, Ada heard the whispers, of war between dueling gods and humans as chess pieces. Of right and wrong on a cosmic scale. Of dying to be right or killing those who are wrong.
And she couldn’t help but wonder if the conflict was completely imaginary, made up by a scared and confused people whose world had changed without giving them a warning or a solution. Years ago the land had dried up, and some gods faded and others came to the forefront, and the elders did not pass on a fear of the old gods in the face of new ones. Surely the chance was not a sign of disrespect or betrayal, but simple necessity. Maybe the gods knew that the world would change without them, and that some of them would be needed while others weren’t.
Probably, Ada was wrong. The rest of the children always said Ada was too nice, too quiet. She’d spent too much time in the shadows to know how the real world worked.
And anyway, the war was still going on.