Fiction · 01/18/2012

Night

Before the Earth was formed, with all its size and splendor, there existed a much smaller world that God built for practice. The to-do list loomed in front of Him, every creation to come, sketched in blazing fits of ego, but He was still young then, neurotic and nervous, not yet brimming with the Old-Testament anger nor the New-Testament grace to come. As such, He had convinced Himself that it would be irresponsible for Him to embark on the creation of life — where each gear must crank just so — without a skeleton run first, so He conjured a roundness and called it the world, and dressed that world with the basics: one woman, animals for her to eat, and likewise, food for the animals, and simple homes for them all. That had all proven satisfactory, especially the human — complicated as a moving universe, all the cells and soul. After seeing those wonders come to pass, God stalled, mostly. He tinkered with plans He’d previously marked as finished. He paced around His large studio, which was clean and minimal — tidy home, tidy mind, He believed — with cool wooden floors and walls covered in scrawlings, on which the timeline was mounted, the edges of the paper fraying from the many times He’d mindlessly unscrolled and surveyed it, playing at being productive.

There was one idea, though, that nagged at Him, and that was the plan for darkness. Sometimes He would find Himself gazing down at the world from His studio windows, letting His thoughts romp like lambs — baby sheep, still in the tinkering stage, though the romping had been decided — as He sat mesmerized by the way the sunlight gleamed hot on the lake, when the idea would appear again in His mind, fond as a memory: darkness. The opposite of day. Night. In those moments, He actually longed for the night, absolute and lush, as if it had once existed and just been wrenched away.

Even after the practice world had been erased into cold silence and the Earth was buzzing with creatures and color, God was unable to backtrack the thread of His readiness. He just knew that for many moments, He hadn’t understood, and the next moment, He had: there would be no night until He decided to actually create the thing.

Tracy lived in the practice world alone, in a bright house with a pine wood frame and a tidy floor made of dry packed dirt. She had no memory of not living in the house, although God had dropped her into the world — gingerly, as if He were dropping an egg into a pot of boiling water — when she was in her early thirties. As far as she could remember, she had always lived in her small home, with its sturdy wooden columns and windows full of steady golden light, and it had always been nested in the knee-length green grass, warm and dry in the sunshine. The yard outside had always been smattered with dandelions, some yellow and squat and wet, some slender and airy with fluffy white halos. There had always been birds, the ones with orange-tipped wings whose eggs cooked up fluffy and light over a fire. There had always been the lake, just past the yard, rolling and clear, stuffed with stout silver fish. There had always been trees for shade, and to house the birds.

Tracy was chopping wood for the cooking fire. The smell of hot iron gathered deep in her throat as she heaved the axe over her shoulder. She thought about fish for later, imagined slicing the flaky white flesh against a smooth rock. Dry grass scratched pleasantly at her calves.

She was there, chopping in the grass, the ever-warm air, and then she was not.

The world turned off. Violently sudden blackness. Nothing.

Tracy stretched both arms out in front of her and stumbled. She blinked her eyes, thinking they were closed. “Stop,” she said, then repeated herself, unsure of who or what she was talking to. It wasn’t until she wrecked her knee into the wood pile that she realized she was still standing in the same place she had been before. She reached out and touched the tips of the scratchy grass. She put her hands on her own damp face.

God was cringing. “Tracy,” He said, but she didn’t hear Him at first.

“Is that You?” she said, reeling her head in the darkness.

“It’s Me,” said God. I’m sorry, He started to say, but caught Himself just in time.

He told her about His great idea, this new night. It was safe, He promised, and it wouldn’t last forever, and the day would soon return. It was a chance for her to rest, He explained, and besides, wasn’t it beautiful, all the cool milky darkness? He realized He was holding His breath between sentences, nervous that Tracy wouldn’t understand. His words seemed too narrow and stilted. Night was just the beginning, after all, of the fated scroll in His studio.

“I already rest,” Tracy said, shaking her head. She rested after she ate, after she chopped wood. She rested by the lake and watched the fish jump. She rested in the grass to feel the weeds brush her skin. Sometimes she talked to God while she rested, and they marveled together over a funny, spindly flower or perfectly-cooked fish.

Tracy’s ebbing fear was replaced by self-pity, remembering herself stumbling around like a fool. Her knee stung. The sudden darkness had been scary — the sky leaving her, the ground vanishing. She cried and beat her fists against her thighs. “You didn’t even warn me,” she said over and over, her face in the grass.

God could only stutter, stunned with sadness at her reaction. Once Tracy’s sobs began to quiet, He said only, “You’ll get used to it,” and set a small fire ablaze so she would have some light.

Having always lived in the never-ending day, Tracy had no language for time, other than “before I skinned the fish” or “after I swept the floor.” She wondered, edging on panic, how long the night would last, but she did not know the words to ask, nor could she imagine a sensible answer. The fire popped and spat. Soon Tracy heard another noise, angry squeaking and rustling. She squinted her eyes in the new darkness. A small creature twisted and railed on the ground, several lengths away, moving like a fish on a line. Tracy stood and approached the thing as it wrestled with the air, and once she got close enough to squint and see the broken feathers, she could see it was a bird. A small bird, small and frightened, its head dark with blood. Its legs ran but it didn’t move. When Tracy reached to pick it up, the bird screeched and pecked in her direction. Its black eyes glistened in the skittering light of the fire. Tracy crouched on the ground next to the bird and wrapped her arms around her knees. Several times, she waved her fingers in front of her own face to reassure herself that she was still completely there.

God was pacing the floors, seething with guilt. He had clutched His throat at the fear in Tracy’s voice. But — He stopped and spread out His hands, as if interrupting someone else’s speech — her shock couldn’t have been avoided. Night was unsubtle; that was the beauty of the idea that had thrilled Him so much. He’d long ago scribbled up the hollow bones of birds; He had plotted out trees and calculated the rocking movement of water, and darkness was the only perfect complement for all the weights and lines and colors of day. He deserved the triumph. He looked down on the small rounded world and the line of His eyebrows softened. He had given Tracy His night and she had screamed, crawled, bucked and cried, but it remained, so far, His masterpiece and His revolutionary invention, night time: the world giving birth to its own opposite.

Soon God was sketching at his desk, ablaze with the success of night, burning incense for atmosphere. Animal noise filled his studio. A creature the size of a thumbnail jerked its way across his paper, pulling itself by its thin claws, leaving an oily trail. Stray feathers vanished and re-appeared as they spun in the light. Beasts with shaggy, dank fur growled and heaved as they arrived, their mouths leaking. God raised His hands and laughed. He stroked their rough paws. He grasped their ears and pressed His face to theirs. He snorted and lowed and called. He went to the window and heaved it open and roared along with them, His triumph as heady as lust.

Tracy squinted at the light as it slowly seeped back into the world — God’s little joke, she assumed, taunting her for reacting so horribly to the suddenness of night. She was numb with cold as gold light spilled over the ground, and all at once, she heaved with tears at the beauty of it, the relief she felt, moving through her like water down a patch of dry land. In the returned light, she examined the bloodied mark and stray feathers where the bird had flown into the edge of the wood pile in the darkness. She cupped her hands and lodged her fingertips underneath the bird, tipping it into her open palms. It side-eyed her and cried out — a noise Tracy recognized, a summons for other birds to hear, a sound that meant Are you there? But no other birds came. Her knuckles were wet with the bird’s blood. She closed one hand around the droplet of its warm body, pressed her thumb up flush against its soft chest, felt the quick heartbeat there. The bird struggled and pecked at her fingers, still calling.

Beasts were filling the studio, and God was drunk on the beauty of His own creations. While He was at it, He’d also skipped ahead on the timeline — the rules were subjective, surely — to invent wine, so He was also a little drunk on merlot. He got cocky and yanked the scroll until He was scanning the rise of human beings, far past the Tracy prototype, and found the sketch marked “Elvis Presley,” a concept He’d been looking forward to fulfilling. Elvis appeared, gyrating and young and beautiful, and between the smell of hay and fur and the wine and rock and roll, God began to weep a little at the beauty of His handiwork. Who was Tracy to tell Him — the one who had created her — that He was in the wrong? He practically had a new planet invented already, right here in His studio, and it was good. In fact — He was thinking out loud now — the new world was quickly surpassing the practice one. He gesticulated wildly to His captive audience as they bleated and sang and stomped along. He marched to the timeline again, covered His eyes with one hand and pointed blindly with the other, and so created meteorites and then — why not — fireflies, which He had sketched out one right after the other. Then He whirled around to look out the open window. Tracy was curled on the ground, small and still, like the child she had never been. His insides clenched as He regarded her, His first great love, His first breathing miracle.

The fear was seeping in again, and even a taste was unbearable. God paused. Elvis crooned.

“Go,” said God, and sent the creatures down.

Tracy knelt behind the wood pile and rubbed soft dirt into her wound with her free hand, the sticky blood mixing with the soil. The bird was no longer pecking, had stopped struggling, its head now cocked back, aimed at the sky. Tracy tried to imagine what might comfort the bird, what a mother bird would do for a baby in the nest. She preened its small skull with one finger and it closed its thin eyelids for just a moment. Tracy’s chest flooded with tenderness. A low noise echoed in the distance and she and the bird both jolted, eyes wide. Tracy climbed to the top of the wood pile and straightened to stand, indignant, holding the bird in both hands, yelling at God to go away.

But what was coming was not just God, and it was not night, though it was dark, and moving fast. It was God and — what? Huge and meaty things, covered in hair more like hers than like feathers, galloping, making noises that shook the ground. Things that were not birds struck through the sky. Tracy heard another sound on top of the thundering, shrill and awful, and realized it was her own voice screaming. She turned and sprinted, kicking up grass, clutching the bird hard to her chest, ignoring her hurt leg as the blood crept down. She ran and felt the ground vibrating with rumbling noise beneath her bare feet. Screeching and roaring and singing and, above it all, God’s triumphant howl.

God could taste dust in His mouth. He thumped the animals on their backs and haunches, feeling the sheen of their furs rub off between His fingers. They were glorious, the new ones; their power pulsed through the air and lifted Him, palpably, like wind. He scanned the practice land with newly-born contempt, embarrassed of His weak first attempts at creation next to these shaggy beasts and soaring lights.

Tracy ran until she reached the lake, and there, she thought, she could hide. She opened her hand. The bird’s body didn’t move, but one eye ticked up at her. She cupped the bird in both hands again, held them to her belly, made a home of her body. She moved slowly so as not to splash, her toes sinking in the silt, feeling the tops of her feet, then her knees, her hands, her shoulders, her neck all washed in succession. She could accept night, she thought rapidly, she could accept the fact that God was no longer her friend; and just by wanting to believe it, she did. The little bird went calm. Tracy felt the dirt loosen in her wound. She slipped beneath the cool water. She opened her mouth. She thought like a fish.

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Lindsey Gates Markel lives in Urbana, IL. She earned an MFA in creative writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, where her thesis featured recurring themes of cats and nipples (but not cat nipples). She is the author of You Are Among Friends, a book of advice for young gals, and her short fiction has previously appeared in Storychord and is forthcoming in Bluestem. She never knows exactly what to do with the space at youareamongfriends.com.