A Piece of Sky

by Kit Spooner

"God has always been," the old woman told me, the light of the bonfire reflecting in her weary black eyes. "Before God there was nothing and we shall not speak of it."

She was the oldest woman I've ever seen, her face a nest of spider-webbed lines and grooves, a map of her youth etched in the flesh beside her mouth, along the corners of her eyes, across her broad forehead. I was only a child then, but I knew that she was too old to exist. She was even older than our Matron.

"God was the beginning and the ending and the great father and mother of all," she continued in a voice sonorous with age and dry with centuries. "But God was lonely in his great, vast Self. He craved light and heat and joy. So he contracted in upon himself to make room for the world. And so it was."

Her hair, I realized, had faded as the hair of aging women tends to do. It was as though her hair had drifted to gray, then white, and then came out the other side. The braids she wore coiled about her heavy-jawed head were like blue-shot steel; they reflected the light of the fire almost as brightly as her eyes.

"Did it hurt God?" I asked.

I was a child, but perhaps that was why she chose me to speak with.

"Of course it did, little one." Her smile was kind in her nut-brown face, her teeth strong and white, incisors pointed like a cat's. "It was agony like God had never contemplated. It was the First Pain and it's still being played out across the earth. But without the Pain, God could not have created the world, could not have created you or your people, Kitten."

My mother was the only one allowed to call me that and I must have bristled visibly.

"Don't raise your hackles at me, child," she chided firmly, the light of the fire smoothing out the lines of her face and darkening her hair. Her eyes still glowed with flame, though. "I could tell your mother that you were not fully respectful to a guest . . ."

It was enough of a threat and I quieted down, settling once more into my little hollow in the thick grass that encircled the fire-pit. The old woman tossed her sheet of long, dark hair over her shoulder and continued with her story.

"The Pain faded and God returned to his task of creation," the woman explained. "He strained light and dark between his fingers and set each to their own domains. Where they met and mingled with shadowy kisses, he hollowed out the earth and set the sky above. Heat and cold were born to wander the earth and sky. The earth fell in love with the sky, who in turn grew to hate the earth, and the cycle of the heavens was set in motion. God found the light and heat and joy that he had desired so desperately."

The woman's hair was still very long, a wavy cascade of deepest cocoa, swathing her broad figure and expansive bosom in strange, flickering shadows. Strong, brown fingers reached out and cupped my chin.

Her hands were very, very warm.

"Don't ever forget that he loved, daughter of the plains." Her voice suddenly held a hint of old menace and I trembled. And this time, she didn't bother to comfort me with a broad smile or a gentle gaze. "God was love and he knew what it meant. Don't ever think otherwise."

"But there were already signs of decay, even before God created life and death." The woman's full lips curled into an almost malicious smile. "There were things that God hadn't accounted for. Color appeared in the sky and the earth trembled with song. Light and dark bore a child, fear, and the infant roamed the world at will."

"But God made everything, right?" My tidy world-view was being picked apart, but I would not be disillusioned quietly and meekly.

I think the woman was amused by this. Her almond-shaped eyes crinkled at the corners and she laughed, slim, golden arms curving up to wrap around her shoulders as she bubbled with humor. "Of course God didn't make everything. He set the process in motion. He didn't make fear, or the color of the sky, or the earthquakes. And that's where the problem lay: By allowing the world to come into existence, God left room for chance."

The fire flared up, a shower of tiny coals bathing the area with ruddy light and making the not-so-old woman's skin seem lighter than the moon in the night. Her hair was short now, a feathery fringe - pale and misty as a cloud - that framed her sharp-featured face, falling across her eyebrows and brushing against high cheekbones. The child that I was took this as a normal sort of occurrence for an old storyteller.

"I don't understand," I admitted, hating the whine I heard in my own voice.

"Few people do," she breathed, full mouth curling with every word. "Let's try a different approach, Kitten. We know that God is perfect and infallible, right?"

I nodded, remembering my lessons with our Matron.

"If God were everything, then everything would be perfect and infallible, right?" Her eyes were gold-red in the firelight.

"Nothing's perfect," I said firmly. I was certain on this point, at least. "Or infallible."

"That's because God had to withdraw into himself to leave room for the world. His Self was sacrificed so that he could create. He felt Pain in exchange for the love of his world." She leaned forward and captured my gaze. "So even something created by God is rife with error and randomness, for the creation is not God. It is not perfect or infallible."

Understanding lurked about the edges of my mind, but now wasn't the time to explore questions of answers. I patiently awaited the rest of the woman's story.

"God realized his mistake almost immediately but it was too late to truly correct it. He loved his creations and couldn't unmake them simply because they were flawed." The woman's rich voice grew sad and she closed her eyes to the glare of the fire. "So he began to collect all of the chaos and deposit it in a particular piece of sky that he loved particularly well. And finally, when he had filled that bit of sky with all the chaos he could gather, he cast Her out."

"What?" I was suddenly breathless.

"He cast Her out," she repeated. "He ripped that piece of night from the firmament and separated Her from not only the world, but also himself. Full of God's errors and mistakes, She created doubt and wept for the first time since the beginning of everything. She knew that She could never rejoin God for She was set up as his opposite, cast down and created to be his adversary."

Now the woman looked angry, and her hair was the color of the flames, tumbling wildly over her shoulders in a profusion of curls the color of autumn leaves - red and gold and russet. Her eyes shifted, from the glint of flame to the depth of fine wine.

"That piece of sky became the creature your people call the White Lady," the woman added in a tightly controlled voice. It was as though the woman's finely strung self-control was all that lay between existence and furious destruction.

"The White Lady?" I immediately drew the Sign in the air in front of me, a warding and a prayer for safety from the Lady. She was said to be beautiful and pure evil. To see her was certain death and complete damnation.

The woman next to me suddenly slapped my hand. "Don't make that sign, little one. It makes no difference to Her and it's an abomination of nature to even suggest it."

I sat very, very still, my eyes wide as I stared helplessly at the woman.

"What did She do then?" I asked, masking my sudden fear behind trembling bravado. "Did She fight God?"

"Don't be ridiculous, girl," the woman scoffed. "Why would She do that? She had enough problems on Her own. She was still beautiful and strong and stubborn. So She went out among the world that God had made. She was the first to suggest, obliquely, that God might wish to create life, in the form of a multitude of beings across his world."

"So that She could hunt God's people and rend his earth with Her dark claws?" My young mind was still desperately trying to reconcile the teachings of my people's Matron with the sudden, sharp storytelling of this fey creature before me.

This time the woman slapped my face. Hard. "The Lady does not hunt or rend!" she told me in a terrible voice.

I wanted to run away, then, but my legs were numb beneath me and my fingers could only scrabble uselessly against the dry grasses and the soft dust below.

"The Lady didn't hunt, but She Sought. That's important to remember, impudent child." She pushed a cascade of thick, red-gold hair back from her face, blowing impatiently on inexpertly trimmed bangs. She looked so very, very young now.

"Her only goal was to find Her way back to God. She knew there had to be a way to rejoin his holiness. Nothing was impossible when dealing with God. And She knew just as certainly that God was Seeking Her as well. For as She watched and traveled and wandered, God's creations grew slowly and steadily to resemble the Lady Herself. When men and women finally appeared on the earth - each a tiny, imperfect recreation of the Lady - She was certain that She knew what had happened."

"What happened?" I prompted when the storyteller fell silent, her freckled face turned slightly away from the bonfire.

"God loved Her, you see," the woman - no, girl, for she was no older than I was - told me. "He had loved Her and still cast Her out. At the time, though, he hadn't realized that by filling Her with the vices and flaws he had inadvertently willed into existence, he also gave Her tremendous gifts. By casting Her out, he lost those gifts to the wind. More importantly, he lost Her. She was the only being in all of existence who was not part of God and She was thus fascinating and exotic and totally unattainable. And he loved Her desperately."

The young girl before me was now so ordinary-looking that without the glinting coals in her eyes, I would have thought her a normal person. Her hair was a nondescript sort of dusty gray-brown and her skin was tanned and freckled like my own. In fact, her features were now much like mine: long, straight nose, strong jaw, deep-set eyes and elegant cheekbones. I realized, as I watched her small, strong hands pluck absently at her wool cloak, that she could have been my sister. I was still frightened of her, but the familiarity of her face was somewhat soothing.

"But God was not responsible for Her now that She was so thoroughly cast out and he couldn't even find Her in all the vastness of his creation. She was well and truly gone. He knew She was in pain - the pain of withdrawal from God - but he couldn't alleviate Her suffering. She was trapped in the world and he no longer had the ability to save Her. She was on her own."

"Was She lonely?" I asked hesitantly. The fire was beginning to die down and I somehow knew that the girl-child storyteller would be leaving soon. I needed to hear the end of the story before the winds drew her back out to the Plains she walked out of.

"Of course She was, Kitten," the girl answered in a slightly scathing tone. "She was separated from her creator and had no sure way of rejoining him. Wouldn't you be lonely?"

I blushed bashfully and nodded.

"Sin in this world is caused by dissociation from God, by physical and spiritual distance from his holiness. The Lady was as far removed from him as one could get. Yet full of primal sin and terrible pain, She continued on her path of Seeking."

"What happened when She found God again?" I wondered aloud. "Did She rejoin him in the sky?"

"She hasn't found God yet, my darling," she said quietly, sadness throbbing in her reedy, youthful voice. She didn't look any older than my littlest sister, her cheeks round with childhood, her chubby fingers reaching up to idly stroke her fine, smooth hair, golden like the sun. "She's still Seeking. She's coming closer, but She's not home yet."

I knew I must have looked truly horrified. The White Lady suffered terribly and my people knew nothing about it! We simply feared Her wildness and kept out of Her way. How did this strange young storyteller come to know of all this?

"Why does She keep torturing Herself with the pain of Seeking?" I suddenly demanded with all the passion of youth. At the time I still believed in the ultimate fairness of the universe and this story of the Lady struck me as horribly, profoundly wrong. "Does She miss Her home in the skies so much that She's willing and eager to hurt Herself? Could she not just as easily made a home for herself here on the earth?"

The small girl rose slowly, gracefully from her seat and brushed out her robes. I realized, with a start, that she was wearing the green and dove-gray uniform of a shaman's apprentice, but the sigil at her breast was completely foreign to me. Her hair was bound up in the complicated headdress of the villagers to the east. She wore no shoes and her feet were dirty and blistered.

"I need to be moving on, child," she said gently and somehow, despite her youthful form, I knew that she had the right to call me 'child.' "It's almost dawn and your mother will be wondering where you are."

"But you didn't finish the story!" I surged to my feet angry and still a little afraid. The night air was cold against my backside, so used to the insulating warmth of my nest of grass.

"The story isn't finished yet." The girl seemed suddenly taller and the gray of her robes shone pale in the waning light of the fire. She turned to walk off into the darkness of the Plains, her too-long cloak trailing awkwardly behind her.

"But . . . why?!" I shouted, wanting to run after her and demand answers, too nervous of her power to try. "Why does She still wander?!"

The cloaked figure paused in mid-stride and turned to gaze at me once more. Her face was no longer round with childhood, but neither was it angled sharply with age. She just looked . . . tired. And sad. Her hair and skin were both dark as the night but her eyes now glowed with light from within. It was like she had her own personal sunrise that lived in her gaze and warmed her from her core.

"Why does She still wander, you ask?" Her voice would have been enough to fell trees, had there been any trees for a dozen leagues in any direction. Instead, she merely felled me. I dropped back into my warm grass-nest, arms and legs splayed uncomfortably.

Before she disappeared into the Plains, she finally answered me.

"It's because I love him."

This story is part allegory, part creation-mythos, and part romance. I've always loved the clannish Plainsman setting for this sort of philosophical story. Curious about the inspiration for this story? Well, it was a combination of a bunch of old Brothers Grimm tales that prodded me to come up with a format (fairy tale as religious exploration). A series of lunch-time discussions of metaphysics in high school lead me to question commonly accepted views of our world (as well as the philosophical underpinnings of such views). And finally, I was re-reading Annie Dillard on the flight home from Greensboro. This gave me the impetus to actually write this. And it put me in an appropriately contemplative mood. Of course, this would never have gotten written if I hadn't been home on Spring Break and alone with my three cats all day. Meow.

I'd love some commentary on this, just so I can see what other people think on the subject of creation myths, which I find universally fascinating, and on the subject of the nature of God, which is equally fascinating and disturbing, in my opinion. (Yes, I'm aggressively agnostic. Wanna make something of it?)