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"Let Him go! Please?"
That was me there, the first one who spoke. Perhaps I should explain.
I found God one day, after coming home from college. The evening light was dim, grey, with streaks of red resting on the horizon, but I could clearly make out the outline of God's face on the yellow chimney, directly across from my bedroom window. I had to catch my breath a few times, steady myself on the windowsill, as I gazed out on Him. And yes, His face really did shine, like they say! It was all so strange, I know, but I was certain.
"God," I whispered, thoroughly awed and overcome. "Finally!"
So He isn't dead? you may ask. No - well, as dead as an immortal being can be: He was trapped in my neighbour's chimney. Fortunately I knew these people well; but, after looking at the time, and deciding it was a bit too late, I put off visiting them. I sat down on my bed, the intention being to do nothing, watch TV or something, but I just couldn't; I kept glancing out the window. Then I walked over and stared until the stars came out. It was a clear, freezing night. I thought, yes, this makes sense - finally!
I was never a good climber, but I sure did scamper up my neighbour's drainpipe like a feline possessed. This was the middle of that night - about two in the morning. I had woken up in a sweat - well, to be honest, I had never really fallen asleep; my mind hovered violently, feverishly, suicidally around that image of God - so familiar yet so strange - like a moth around a flame. Looking out the window then, again, it had shone as brightly as before, a fallen star.
Now, atop that roof, which was very slippery and bumpy, I made for the chimney, the black vertical blob across the slanting shingles. My shoes made a lot of noise, but I was confident it wasn't loud enough to wake the young couple beneath. Peering as best I could into the chimney pot, I made out something, a form. Him! There He was, the Almighty: sooty, crushed, fallen, and very, very melancholy. I smiled, a dumb smile, and He stared at me. His face was pressed up against the side of the chimney, so that, after what was surely many years, a relief map of God's visage had been created - pushed through - on the other side. This was what I had seen that evening.
But suddenly, just as I was falling in love with Him, I became exceedingly embarrassed. I flushed and flung myself from view, falling prostrate on my knees and steadying my shivering body with my cheek against the slimy stone. I was nearly crying! I felt so ashamed. I recognised Him! I had abandoned Him here. For nearly a decade I had been an unbeliever.
After about ten minutes, motionless, thoughtless, I left, scared down by a black cat that sprang across my tear-stained eyes.
I dreamt about my father that night, for what was left of it. It had been seven years since he died. And it was the first time I had thought about him for a long, long time, maybe over a year. I walked with him, as a child, through the streets of Kingston, London. It was a nice memory. But something about it, on this night, left a sour taste. When I woke up, I was so ashamed - ashamed that I was still a child in his presence - ashamed that I had not grown up for him. Yes, ashamed that he could not see me now, as a man. My own arm, so to speak, was still a part of his, as he tugged me along the bank of the Thames. Thinking about it more I only confused myself. So I stopped and got up, feeling rotten in the dawn's chilly light. I still had something on my mind - God!
As I neared my neighbour's door, I heard a child running frantically up the stairs, falling every second step. The front window was open and a thin white veil of a curtain fluttered in and out. I caught the smell of freshly-made family. The house, for me, had always exuded a certain aura, which, until the previous night, was the only thing in the world I thought sacred.
Matilda's indefatigable smile greeted me. The rest of her body looked worn and haggard: a saggy, stained jumper and jeans. Her husband, Tom, looked out at me from the kitchen.
Matilda and I were cousins, or so we thought - we were never quite sure; either way, we always dispensed with the need for small talk.
"You have God in your chimney," I told them. I allowed a solemn pause, but I eagerly awaited their response.
The house itself seemed to stand still for a moment; my words faded with the chime of the doorbell. Matilda's head drooped slightly. Tom came up and stood beside her, rather protectively. He stared at me; suspicion tried but failed to enter his good-natured eyes. After a brief silence, they looked at each other.
"We know," they said. "He came with the house."
This brings us full circle, pretty much. We sat in the living room, the kids having left for school. I wanted them, simply, to let Him go, knock down the chimney - but they would not agree to it.
"It would cost too much," Tom explained, palms opened to me in pure, pink sincerity.
"And we have another baby on the way, Nate," Matilda whispered. We all smiled as she felt her two-month-old tummy.
"Congratulations," I said.
"Congratulations," God murmured.
My skin jumped. I knocked my glass to the floor. When I looked towards the fireplace, a tiny avalanche of ash was all that was left to prove that God had just spoken. I glanced helplessly at the couple, and my heart pounded: I had completely forgotten that God could hear us all.
Matilda, clearly annoyed by the interruption, met my eyes and reluctantly introduced me:
"That's God. God, this is our friend, Nate."
"I know!" the Almighty replied, insulted. "Of course I know who he is!"
"Less loud, please!" Tilly returned. I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of a family fight. I then wondered, wasn't this the way it should be? God, a part of the family?
An embarrassing silence filled the room. I took this opportunity to move closer to God, closer to the fireplace.
"Is it really you?" I asked; my eyes wandered uncertainly.
I paused, before speaking again very slowly: "Shouldn't you be... unintelligible, or something?"
"When in Rome."
I was stunned. And I knew that silence, too: He didn't want to indulge my interest anymore.
My back was arched to allow me to talk face-to-face with the fireplace, and my legs were bent achingly at the knees. When Tom called me over, I retreated in that very same manner. It never even occurred to me to change. My eyes were fixed to that black hole in the wall - until the moment when Tom spoke to me again.
"We are a God-fearing couple," he began anew, having noticed my apparent devotion. "We had a Catholic wedding ceremony... right hun? We go to church every Sunday; Danny even goes to a Christian Brothers' school..." I noticed the pent up frustration behind his soft tones. I waited patiently.
"But we simply cannot afford to rebuild our chimney, Nate!"
God heard this and answered for me.
"I have told you exactly what to do, foolish man and wife! You must love me; that is all I expect from anyone (slaves included). You must love me, and then I shall let myself go. I will have it no other way!"
His voice echoed around the room, and no doubt a few birds flew away from the top of the chimney outside. I saw a few flap down hastily onto the garden through the window. Matilda left the room, whispering to her unborn child something I could not quite make out. She didn't want God to hear, that's for sure.
I felt God was watching me now; I was doing His work. I asked Tom, did he love God: he said he did. I asked about Matilda: he said he wasn't sure. I asked God would that do: He said it wouldn't, foolish boy.
"Wouldn't knocking down the chimney help?" I asked, desperation drying up my mouth.
I heard Him mumble something; I asked again.
Finally, grudgingly, He answered. "It might."
I praised His mercy and benevolence and brought Matilda and Tom back into the room. I had a plan.
The matter would be brought before the neighbourhood committee; and then, I was sure, enough money would be raised through appeal to rebuild the Hollands' chimney, once we had won the vote of course. God would be released safe in the knowledge that the whole community, not least the couple in question, loved Him and wanted Him to create that "world of harmony" He had promised. Personally, I had my doubts about the last part, the world of harmony bit. The way He said it, it reminded me of all the ambitious resolutions I would make - on the nearest scrap of paper or something - when seriously ill and lying in bed. It reminded me of what my father told me on his death-bed.
It was a promise that bloomed before it could be born.
My speech to the neighbourhood committee, two nights later, was the best I had ever spoken in public. I took my cue from the late, great Joseph Heller: I didn't write down a word of it. (And so it shall not be reprinted here.) I sweated profusely. I believed in every word I said.
Twenty-eight of my neighbours were seated before me in the small, stuffy room, which was in actual fact the recreation room of the chairman. Many fanned themselves with the meeting program - the cover of which, a picture of God behind bars, was my own idea. The majority were over-fifty, with youth - young couples and their young children - found scattered here and there like the few green beads left on a dying, yellow head of broccoli.
When referring to God, I mentioned neither punishment nor reward; that simply wasn't the point. What was the point, I stressed, as the chairman signalled to wind it up, was that He watched us. He watched our lives and gave them meaning. And although He is slightly impaired right now, I added, He is even watching this meeting: He is watching me speaking right now, and scrutinizing the heart that sends forth these words. (I paused, dramatically.) And He is watching your hearts that receive them. Thank you.
The first response to my speech disturbed me. Before any palms had collided in applause, an old man in the front row growled, "That makes no sense!" I was so put off I missed a step on my way down and fell into him; at which point he smiled at me, an unctuous little grin. His withered hands belatedly clapped in my face until I moved away. I was more disappointed by this reaction than the initial complaint, for I was genuinely curious: what did not make any sense?
Mulling over this, I returned to my seat between Tom and my mother, expecting the vote to be called soon. The faint but widespread applause quickly dissipated behind me; my mother, as always, having the last clap. I then noticed that Matilda's seat was vacant.
Nobody knew Matilda had prepared a speech. Arriving at the podium, she was dressed very smartly, and her expression had turned cool and calm; the smile, I thought bitterly, had finally fallen off. It was rather snide of me, I know, but I was certain that only bad could come of this. (It makes me feel better to say that, later, I apologised to her for this indiscretion. It was a product of shock rather than character.)
"Ladies and gentleman," she began.
Her voice rang softly with a friendly distance. I began to gnaw on my nails. I could still feel God watching me, watching me watching Tilly - and it was all a sad, sad sight!
"We are assuming something very important in this discussion. It has not yet been addressed. Firstly, I do not believe this is God."
The room muttered in surprise, a surprise that soon grew a fresh coat of approval as it rolled through people's minds. "The Devil!" some whispered, quite insanely.
"I do not believe this is God," Tilly repeated more forcefully, seeing the response. She stopped her words and deliberated for a moment.
"I do not believe this is God," she sang - sang! My jaw dropped.
"I do not believe this is God!
Well, he's stuck in a chim-ney!"
Her voice became higher, stringing 'chimney' into three sweetened, elongated syllables, similar to the rendition of 'God' that preceded it.
The old man smiled at this line. He started to clap his hands again, this time in rhythm with others around him and the burgeoning tune falling from Tilly's mouth. In fact, everyone was encouraged to join in: Tilly's pounding fist, and now revitalised smile, conducted.
"That's right! - He's stuck in a chim-ney!
What kind of God
O what kind of God
Can't even set himself free?
Oh (everybody!) I do not believe this is God - No!
I do not believe this is God:
The brick in my wall
Is too strong and tall
For the Supreme, the Almighty, our God?
I do not believe this is God:
What made him fall
This creator of all?
I reject that this is our God
I do not believe this is God - No!
And so on.
I felt sick to my stomach. I yelled in vain over the last few lines, "This makes no sense!" But what was far more important, and more devastating, was that I knew too well what this beguiling ditty foretold. And I was soon proved right.
The song at an end, the interminably loud applause still ringing in my ears, the chairman asked for a show of hands. My neighbourhood spoke unequivocally: with twenty-two hands to three, the No side won. The chimney would not be torn down. Tom, my mother and I were the only ones to vote Yes. The three people who abstained, by the way, were a Jewish family, who, after hearing all the song and debate, decided it wasn't their battle - it clearly wasn't their God - and left shaking their heads.
In any case, God had lost His first democratic election.
Later that night, the Hollands, inviting a few of their closest friends around (and fellow no-voters), held a ceremony in honour of the committee's decision. The agenda centred around one event: the lighting of the fire and the symbolic cremation of God. I was given the option to come or not, considering how close I had become to God, but I chose to go. I had accepted defeat. Still, my mother felt compelled to join me for support.
Thus, dinner over and done with, I sat on the couch. I had not spoken more than a few words all night, and those were mindless pleasantries. Mother sat close beside me and, startling me from my torpor, whispered in my ear:
"You don't have to look, Nate. You can leave now."
At that moment, Matilda lit the fire, and the guests, all standing up, cheered and tapped their glasses together. I merely sighed. The fire soon grew and filled our part of the living room with a ruddy glow. The firelight, mixed with the shadow in which I was sitting, shimmered playfully on my eyes. I suddenly wondered why God had not said anything since the meeting - were we lost to Him now? What about me?
Then God spoke:
"Get me some water," He ordered; but His voice was hoarse and undermined the authority He thought He had. Indeed, the guests just ignored Him. I listened with surprising patience.
"Get me some water," He repeated. I stared at the pale clock-face on the opposite wall.
"Get me some water, my boy."
At this my eyes unglazed and my mouth fell open - I looked at my mother, but the spark of recognition was missing in her darkened eyes. Instead, I turned back to the fire, crackling, glowing gold and orange. My father had just asked me for water. Strange, I know, but I was certain.
"Get me some water, my boy."
And suddenly I was a child again, twelve years old. My father was dying in front of me. He sat clutching his chest. Between us stood a clear-glass kitchen door, slightly ajar. The radio, beside his quivering elbow, blared out inconsiderately. He had told me to leave him, but I would not budge, so he now asked me to get him some water. I could not do that either.
"Get me some water, my boy."
Until that point I had been happily eating my dinner in the other room. Despite his pain, he had made it for me. I ate, he died. I drank, he died. I watched TV, he died, a few feet away, with the radio's senseless noise confusing the last moments of his life.
Then I had found him again.
Then I lost him.
Then I was alone.
He left me with these words: "God will reunite us."
All this came to me in a flash, one hiss of the fire. Back in Tilly's living room, I found tears standing in my eyes and a heavy heat clinging to my forehead. I rushed out the door.
Outside, I ran to the drainpipe and climbed up onto the roof. The chimney spewed out the remains of God into the freezing air in a thick, sinuous string of smoke. I walked across uneasily and crouched down beside it. The stars were out and I lay down underneath them. They blanketed me for nearly two hours, but I never fell asleep - it was too cold.
I sat up and was able to see the guests as they left for the night. They talked and laughed merrily as they were escorted out to the front gate by Matilda and Tom. Their breaths floated up in miniature versions of the chimney beside me; and their erratic footsteps echoed up and down the black, sleeping street. Watching this lifted my spirits. For now I alone watched over them; smoke and stars watched over me.
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