The last continent, p.18
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       The Last Continent, p.18

         Part #22 of Discworld series by Terry Pratchett
 
Page 18

 

  I just think that theres something very odd about a boat-shaped plant turning up just when we want a boat, said Ridcully. I mean, chocolate coconuts, yes, and even filter-tipped cigarettes, but a boat with a figurehead?

  Its not a proper boat without a figurehead, said the Senior Wrangler. Yes, but how does it know that? said Ridcully, wading ashore again. Well, Im not falling for it. I want to know whats going on here.

  Damn! They all heard the voice – thin, reedy and petulant. It came from everywhere around them. Small soft white lights appeared in the air, spun around one another with increasing speed, and then imploded. The god blinked, and rocked back and forth as he tried to steady himself. Oh, my goodness, he said. What do I look like? He held up a hand in front of his face and flexed his fingers experimentally.

  Ah. The hand patted his face, his bald head, and lingered for a moment on the long white beard. He seemed puzzled. Whats this? he said. Er . . . a beard? said Ponder. The god looked down at his long white robe. Oh. Patriarchality? Oh, well . . . let me see, now . . . He seemed to pull himself together, focused his gaze on Ridcully, and his huge white eyebrows met like angry caterpillars. Begone from This Place Or I Will Smite Thee! he commanded. Why? The god looked taken aback. Why? You cant ask why in this situation!

  Why not? The god looked slightly panicky. Because . . . Thou Must Go from This Place Lest I Visit Thee with Boils!

  Really? Most people would bring a bottle of wine, said Ridcully. The god hesitated. What? he said. Or cake, said the Dean. Cake is a good present if youre visiting someone.

  It depends on what kind of cake, said the Senior Wrangler. Sponge cake, Ive always thought, is a bit of an insult. Something with a bit of marzipan is to be preferred.

  Begone from this place lest I visit you with cake? said the god. Its better than boils, said Ridcully. Provided its not sponge, said the Senior Wrangler. The problem faced by the god was that, while he had never encountered wizards before, the wizards had in their student days met, more or less on a weekly basis, things that threatened them horribly as a matter of course. Boils didnt hold much of a menace when rogue demons had wanted to rip your head off and do terrible things down the hole. Listen, said the god, I happen to be the god in these parts, do you understand? I am, in fact, omnipotent!

  Id prefer that, what is it, you know, the cake with the pink and yellow squares— muttered the Senior Wrangler, because wizards tend to follow a thought all the way through. Youre a bit small, then, said the Dean. And the sugary marzipan on the outside, marvellous stuff . . . The god finally realized what else had been bothering him. Scale was always tricky in these matters. Being three feet high was not adding anything to his authority. Damn! he said again. Why am I so small?

  Size isnt everything, said Ridcully. People always smirk when they say that. I cant think why.

  Youre absolutely right! snapped the god, as if Ridcully had triggered an entirely new train of thought. Look at amoebas, except that of course you cant because theyre so small. Adaptable, efficient and practically immortal. Wonderful things, amoebas. His little eyes misted over. Best days work I ever did.

  Excuse me, sir, but exactly what kind of god are you? said Ponder. And is there cake or not? said the Senior Wrangler. The god glared up at him. I beg your pardon? he said. I meant, what is it that youre the god of? said Ponder. I said, what about this cake youre supposed to have? said the Senior Wrangler. Senior Wrangler?

  Yes, Archchancellor?

  Cake is not the issue here.

  But he said—

  Your comments have been taken on board, Senior Wrangler. And they will be thrown over the side as soon as we leave harbour. Do continue, god, please. For a moment the god looked in a thunderbolt mood, and then sagged. He sat down on a rock. All that smiting talk doesnt really work, does it? he said gloomily. You dont have to be nice about it. I could tell. I could give you boils, you understand, its just that I cant really see the point. They clear up after a while, anyway. And it is rather bullying people, isnt it? To tell you the truth, Im something of an atheist.

  Sorry? said Ridcully. You are an atheist god?

  The god looked at their expressions. Yes, I know, he said. Its a bit of a bottomer, isnt it? He stroked his long white beard. Why exactly have I got this?

  You didnt shave this morning? said Ridcully. I mean, I simply tried to appear in front of you in a form that you recognize as godly, said the god. A long beard and a nightshirt seem to be the thing, although the facial hair is a little puzzling.

  Its a sign of wisdom, said Ridcully. Said to be, said Ponder, whod never been able to grow one. Wisdom: insight, acumen, learning, said the god thoughtfully. Ah. The length of the hair improves the operation of the cognitive functions? Some sort of cooling arrangement, perhaps?

  Never really thought about it, said Ridcully. The beard gets longer as more wisdom is acquired? said the god. Im not sure its actually a case of cause and effect, Ponder ventured. Im afraid I dont get about as much as I should, said the god sadly. To be frank, I find religion rather offensive. He heaved a big sigh and seemed to look even smaller. Honest, I really do try but there are some days when life just gets me down . . . Oh, excuse me, liquid seems to be running out of my breathing tubes . . .

  Would you like to blow your nose? said Ponder. The god looked panicky. Where to?

  I mean, you sort of hold . . . Look, heres my handkerchief, you just sort of put it over your nose and sort of . . . well, snuffle into it.

  Snuffle, said the god. Interesting. And what a curiously white leaf.

  No, its a cotton handkerchief, said Ponder. Its . . . made. He stopped there. He knew that handkerchiefs were made, and cotton was involved, and he had some vague recollection of looms and things, but when you got right down to it you obtained handkerchiefs by going into a shop and saying, Id like a dozen of the reinforced white ones, please, and how much do you charge for embroidering initials in the corners?

  You mean . . . created? said the god, suddenly very suspicious. Are you gods too? Beside his foot a small shoot pushed through the sand and began to grow rapidly. No, no, said Ponder. Er . . . you just take some cotton and . . . hammer it flat, I think . . . and you get handkerchiefs.

  Oh, then youre tool-using creatures, said the god, relaxing a little. The shoot near his foot was already a plant now, and putting out leaves and a flowerbud. He blew his nose loudly. The wizards drew closer. They were not, of course, afraid of gods, but gods tended to have uncertain tempers and a wise man kept away from them. However, its hard to be frightened of someone whos having a good blow. Youre really the god in these parts? said Ridcully. The god sighed. Yes, he said. I thought it would be so easy, you know. Just one small island. I could start all over again. Do it properly. But its all going completely wrong. Beside him the little plant opened a nondescript yellow flower. Start all over again?

  Yes. You know . . . godliness. The god waved a hand in the direction of the Hub. I used to work over there, he said. Basic general godding. You know, making people out of clay, old toenails, and so on? And then sitting on mountaintops and casting thunderbolts and all the rest of it. Although, he leaned forward and lowered his voice, very few gods can actually do that, you know.

  Really? said Ridcully, fascinated. Very hard thing to steer, lightning. Mostly we waited until a thunderbolt happened to hit some poor soul and then spake in a voice of thunder and said it was his fault for being a sinner. I mean, they were bound to have done something, werent they? The god blew his nose again. Quite depressing, really. Anyway . . . I suppose the rot set in when I tried to see if it was possible to breed a more inflammable cow. He looked at the questioning expressions. Burnt offerings, you see. Cows dont actually burn all that well. Theyre naturally rather soggy creatures and frankly everyone was running out of wood. They carried on staring at him. He tried again. I really couldnt see the point of the whole business, to tell you the truth. Shouting, smiting, getting angry all the time . . . dont thi
nk anyone was getting anything out of it, really. But the worst part . . . You know the worst part? The worst part was that if you actually stopped the smiting, people wandered off and worshipped someone else. Hard to believe, isnt it? Theyd say things like, “Things were a lot better when there was more smiting,” and, “If there was more smiting, itd be a lot safer to walk the streets. ” Especially since all thatd really happened was that some poor shepherd who just happened to be in the wrong place during a thunderstorm had caught a stray bolt. And then the priests would say, “Well, we all know about shepherds, dont we, and now the gods are angry and we could do with a much bigger temple, thank you. ”

  Typical priestly behaviour, sniffed the Dean. But they often believed it! the god almost wailed. It was really so depressing. I think that before we made humanity, we broke the mould. Thered be a bad weather front, a few silly shepherds would happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and next thing you know it was standing room only on the sacrificial stones and you couldnt see for the smoke. He had another good blow on a piece of Ponders handkerchief that had so far remained dry. I mean, I tried. God knows I tried, and since thats me, I know what Im talking about. “Thou Shall Lie Down Flat in Thundery Weather,” I said. “Thou Shalt Site the Midden a Long Way from the Well,” I said. I even told them, “Thou Shalt Really Try to Get Along with One Another. ”

  Did it work?

  I cant say for sure. Everyone was slaughtered by the followers of the god in the next valley who told them to kill everyone who didnt believe in him. Ghastly fellow, Im afraid.

  And the flaming cows? said Ridcully. The what? said the god, sunk in misery. The more inflammable cow, said Ponder. Oh, yes. Another good idea that didnt work. I just thought, you know, that if you could find the bit in, say, an oak tree which says “Be inflammable” and glue it into the bit of the cow which says “Be soggy” itd save a lot of trouble. Unfortunately, that produced a sort of bush that made distressing noises and squirted milk, but I could see the principle was sound. And frankly, since my believers were all dead or living in the next valley by then I thought, to hell with it all, Id come back here and get to grips with it and do it all more sensibly. He brightened up a bit. You know, its amazing what you get if you break even the common cow down into very small bits.

  Soup, said Ridcully. Because, sooner or later, everything is just a set of instructions, the god went on, apparently not listening. Thats just what Ive always said! said Ponder. Have you? said the god, peering at him. Well, anyway . . . thats how it all began. I thought it would be a much better idea to create creatures that could change their own instructions when they needed to, you see . . .

  Oh, you mean evolution, said Ponder Stibbons. Do I? The god looked thoughtful. “Changing over time . . . ” Yes, thats actually quite a good word, isnt it? Evolution. Yes, I suppose thats what I do. Unfortunately, it doesnt seem to be working properly.

  Beside him, there was a pop. The little plant had fruited. Its pod had sprung open and there appeared to be, bunched up like a chrysanthemum, a fresh white hankie. You see? he said. Thats the sort of thing Im up against. Everything is so completely selfish about it. He took the handkerchief in an absent-minded way, blew his nose on it, crumpled it up, and dropped it on the ground. Im sorry about the boat, he continued. It was a bit of a rush job, you see. I just didnt want anyone upsetting everything, but I really dont believe in smiting, so I thought that since you wanted to leave here I should help you do so as soon as possible. I think I did rather a good job, in the circumstances. Itll find new land automatically, I think. So why didnt you go?

 
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