In his outstanding second short story collection (after 2002's The Ogre's Wife, a World Fantasy Award finalist), Parks blends wry wit and profound insight with myths and folklore from around the globe. Noteworthy selections include the darkly lyrical and melancholic "The Plum Blossom Lantern," about Michiko the ghost and her nocturnal trysts, and the whimsical title story, which pits an overzealous saint against a laid-back mountain god. The most compelling entry, "Voices in an Empty Room," features a recurring character in many of Parks's stories: intrepid ghost hunter Eli Mothersbaugh. Ten years after a suicide terrorist killed more than a hundred people at an Independence Day ceremony in Canemill, Miss., Mothersbaugh investigates a haunting. What Mothersbaugh uncovers will change his view of the world forever. Blurring the lines between science fiction, fantasy, horror and spiritual speculation, this compilation of 14 magical and supernatural tales is as entertaining as it is edifying. (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Worshipping Small Godsby Richard Parks
Worshipping Small Gods is the follow-up to his World Fantasy Award finalist debut collection, The Ogre's Wife- containing fourteen stories, three of which are original to this volume, and all created with the same philosophy- follow where the story leads, and face whatever comes. These destinations range from comic zen parables as in the title story, "Worshiping Small Gods," to the darkest depths of the human heart as in "Voices in an Empty Room." Whether dark fantasy, comedy, near future sf or wry contemporary fantasy, these stories all share that same insight and honesty . . .
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The God of War looked at his sister with open admiration. "You are a marvel, Eris, but what's this about?"
She looked up from her workbench, the sweat of honest toil glistening on her plain face. The object on the bench was beginning to take shape. Ares didn't yet know what it was, but he surely knew what it meant: trouble. Ares liked trouble, and so naturally he adored his younger sister. Eris, Goddess of Discord.
"They didn't invite me!" she said. It was more of a snarl.
"Who didn't invite you? To what?"
"Zeus! Hera! My own mother and father! They didn't invite me to the wedding feast for King Peleus and that slut, Thetis."
Ares shrugged. "Eris, you're my own dear sister but it's reasonable that no one wants Discord at a wedding. Especially this one."
"I know what the oracles said but that doesn't matter," Eris said primly. "What does matter is that I wasn't asked. They should have asked, you know."
"Would you go if they did?"
"Of course not! You know I hate parties." She gave him a disturbing look. "You were invited, weren't you?"
Ares nodded. "Weeks ago. I was thinking of not going." He noticed her glare and quickly added, "Out of respect for you, of course." Ares might have liked trouble, but he wasn't a total fool.
Eris turned back to her work, slightly mollified. Being Eris, she was never more than slightly mollified once her anger was in full flower. Strangely enough, Ares, the God of War, was one of the very few who could do it.
Eris smiled then. "Oh, I think you should go, Brother Dear. After all, I am. Invited or not."
There was a hint in her tone that Ares found intriguing. He waited untilthe object of her attention was finally completed. She held it up, flushed with triumph.
Ares just stared at the thing. He examined it this way and that, read the inscription, stared some more. "It's a golden apple," he said finally.
"Yes," Eris said, as if the fact was self-evident. Which, Ares had to admit, it was. Beyond that he was having a great deal of trouble finding the point. "It's lovely," he said, "but what's it for? A wedding gift?"
Eris glared at him. "Of sorts, but it's not just the apple! It's the apple and the word together, otherwise it doesn't work."
"It just says 'Kallisti.'"
"'To the fairest,' yes," Eris confirmed with more patience than was normal for her.
"I still don't understand," Ares said.
Eris sighed a sigh of pure martyrdom. "Just trust me, Brother--go to the wedding feast. You don't want to miss this."
Paris, Prince of Troy, was a very confused young man. One moment he was watching his flocks like any good shepherd who also happened to be a Prince of Troy. All he had done was find an apple of pure gold lying half-buried and dirty beneath a bush, brushed it off, and read the single word inscribed on it: "Kallisti." The next moment there were three extremely lovely goddesses in front of him. The really strange part was that he was having a hard time being happy about either. The situation was playing a lively game of spin and toss with his sense of reality and yet the sheep on the hillside grazed on, unconcerned with the troubles of gods and mortals. Paris rather envied those sheep just then.
"So let me understand this: by the mere act of finding this golden apple I have been chosen by Zeus himself to judge which of the three of you goddesses is the most beautiful?"
Hera glared. "We said that already. Weren't you listening?"
Paris bowed his head. "It's just that I'm unable to believe my great good fortune."
"Don't lie," Athena said. "It's unwise to lie to a goddess. You're shaking."
"My sister's right for once," Aphrodite said. "So tell the truth and choose me and we can put all this unpleasantness behind us."
Athena snorted. "You? I'm much prettier than you."
"Hah! How can you say so? Around the world, legions of men old and young alike quake in their sleep for desire of me!"
"That doesn't make you pretty, Sister Dear," Athena said. "That makes you a brothel-sign."
Hera raised a hand in command. "Squabbling before mortals is unseemly. Besides, we all know the apple belongs to me. Choose quickly, my good Paris."
Paris was having a rough time all around. Choosing seemed impossible. Hera was rather matronly but that didn't detract a whit from her poise and refined, regal beauty. Athena was tall and dark haired, and to call her statuesque didn't even do her justice. As for Aphrodite, well, Paris' knees wobbled and his reason turned to mist whenever she smiled at him.
Paris finally shook his head. "No."
All three sets of goddess eyebrows raised in anger and Paris saw the fires of Hades burning for him in their eyes.
"No? You have no choice!" they said as one.
"Your pardon, Your Divines, but by your own words I have one choice: who is to get the apple. Whichever one I favor, I make enemies of the other two. Disputes between goddesses and mortals tend to be a bit one-sided, if the stories are true."
"Nonsense," Hera said. "Zeus made us swear to this. We won't hurt you. Will we?" All three shook their heads in emphatic denial.
Paris was not reassured in the least. "It's not particularly unwise for a goddess to lie to a mortal," Paris said, "since there are seldom consequences for her. Yet it's seldom to the mortal's advantage when she does so."
All three goddesses merely looked away, whistled or shuffled their feet and tried to look innocent. Paris managed to keep his tone light though the effort cost him. "This is a very important decision, as you no doubt agree. At the least I need time to consider."
"You have until tomorrow," Hera said.
"Early," Athena said.
The Goddess of Love demurred. "Not too early. I need my beauty sleep."
"Yes, you do," Athena said sweetly.
"For immortal goddesses you seem particularly concerned about time," Paris said, but hastily added, "Until tomorrow morning then, Fair Ones."
The goddesses disappeared, and it was only then that Paris put his head in his heads and wailed. "What am I going to do?"
"Not much you can do, really," said someone who hadn't spoken before now. Paris looked up.
Just to the side of where the goddesses had been there was a rather plain young girl leaning against a cedar, a fierce frown on her face. That was just surface appearance; by the glow around her Paris recognized a goddess when he saw one. "Who are you?"
"My name is Eris."
"Not..." Paris didn't finish.
The girl nodded, looking a little less fierce and a little more melancholy. "Goddess of Discord. The same. That's my apple, by the way."
"It is? But you weren't with the others..."
She sighed. "I didn't say I wanted in that cattle contest, dolt! I said it was mine. I made it."
"You made this?" The implication of what the girl--and she did look like a girl, and no goddess--was saying sank in. "This is all your fault!"
"It's my doing. My fault?" She shrugged. "Not in my view. Some few decades ago the gods held a wedding feast for King Peleus and the nymph Thetis. I wasn't invited. Of course I had to do something to get back at them, so I sent that apple rolling in."
Paris held up the apple. "And how, pray, does this get back at them?"
Eris grinned. "It ruined the party, silly. It was a rather good party before those three started squabbling over my gift. Zeus was terrified it would interfere with the wedding itself. He was whiter than frost."
"Zeus? Afraid? Why?"
Eris sighed. "Because the oracles said Thetis was destined to bear a son who would be greater than his father. What if randy Zeus had fathered a child on her before he knew that? Or another god had done so, for that matter? By securing Thetis' marriage to a mere mortal, Zeus kept the child from becoming a threat to his power. And it worked, too. Thetis eventually gave birth to mighty Achilles who, while magnificent, is mortal. The prophecy is fulfilled."
Paris was having a lot of trouble getting his mind to expand enough to grasp the nuances of divine politics and society. All he knew was that, come tomorrow, his life wasn't worth a pile of sheep dung. "Eris, why are you here? Have you come to gloat?"
"I wasn't thinking past the party, to tell the truth," Eris said. "I expected Zeus to give the judgment, and have the other two mad at him. The sly boots wiggled out of it by passing the judgment on to whoever found the apple after he cast it into the world. I've been looking for the apple myself off and on, but you found it first, unfortunately for you." She looked him up and down. "Pity. For a mortal you're not too ugly."
Paris put his head back in his hands. "Too kind. So. If you had known, would it have changed anything?"
"Probably not," Eris said. "I'm a goddess. You're a mortal. Mortals are always getting trampled underfoot as we go about our business, and that's the price of being a mortal. I pay my own for being what I am."
Paris looked up again. "What are you talking about? What could be the disadvantages of being divine?"
Eris nodded. "Spoken with the typical certainty of one who doesn't know what he's talking about. How would you like it if everything you were or wanted to be was out of your hands?"
There was such pain and anger in the girl's voice that, for a little while, Paris forgot his own difficulties. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I'm the Goddess of Discord. Do you think it's because I'm a troublemaker by nature?"
"Meaning no offense ... aren't you?"
She put her hands on her hips. "I feel very strongly and I act on what I feel. I won't say I'm sorry I ruined Zeus's party since I'm not, but that was as far as I meant to go. Yet because I'm a goddess everything I do is an act of creation and has a life beyond me."
"What about the three who were here earlier?"
Eris shrugged. "It's the same: Hera is queen because she's bossy. In a human that's annoying but in a goddess it's worse. Athena actually is very wise when her pride isn't in the way, but no one who takes her advice really understands it, and often comes to grief. Aphrodite is in love with the idea of love. She can't help it and she can't stop, and you know what kind of misery that can cause."
"Not yet I don't," Paris said.
Now Eris blinked. "You've never been in love?"
"No. Nor am I likely to, before the two goddesses who don't get the apple do something horrible to me. Have you?"
Eris frowned. "Love? I don't think so." It was clear from her tone that the question had never even occurred to her.
Paris sighed. "I hear it's wonderful and terrible all at once. It's something I'd like to find out."
"Then do it."
Paris laughed. "How? This time tomorrow I'll probably be dead."
Eris shook her head. "None of those three will just kill you outright; they swore to Zeus they would not harm the judge. That won't stop them from seeking revenge, mind, but they'll have to be subtle about it and subtlety takes time. You use that time to fall in love."
"I haven't been able to do so in twenty years of life. I doubt there's that much left to me, even with the delay."
Eris looked thoughtful. "By Zeus's decree the apple sought an honest judge. So tell me the truth: is there one of those three you consider most beautiful?"
Paris shook his head. "That's another problem. It's like trying to choose among three stars in the sky! I can't do it."
"Then don't." Paris opened his mouth to protest but Eris raised her hand. "No, listen to me--in their hearts each of those harpies knows she is the fairest, apple or no. They just want the apple for what it represents. It's the apple that is their goal, not the judgment as such. So don't choose who is the fairest--choose which one gets the apple. Let the best offer win."
"They're going to bribe me?"
Eris rolled her eyes. "Of course! You don't think they care for fairness, do you? I got you into this. I cannot get you out, but for what it's worth I say listen to what they offer. You make enemies of two goddesses tomorrow, and you and I both know what that means. As long as you're paying the price, choose the merchandise you like best."
Paris thought about it. "Aphrodite ... I could choose love?"
Eris smiled sadly. "You can choose whatever you want. Another advantage of being mortal, though for some strange reason you seem to feel it a curse."
Eris slowly faded away.
"Don't..." Paris started to say "don't go" to the Goddess of Discord, but felt foolish. Still, hers was the closest thing to a friendly voice Paris had heard all day.
Eris just smiled. "Don't worry, Paris. I am Discord. More than likely you will see me again if you wish to or not."
And Paris knew she was no doubt right.
Whatever Eris' skills as an advisor, it was soon clear she made a good enough prophet. That night in his dreams the three goddesses came to Paris. Hera, being Queen of Heaven, arrived first, splendid and regal. She had forsaken much of what made her appear human to enter the realms of dreams. She was more aspect than woman now, all symbol and dark fire. She took a look around Paris's dreams first, but they were rather innocuous, tentative things that night. If she was looking for his heart's desire she didn't find it.
"I can make you ruler of the world," she said. "Most men would like that."
"If I give you the apple?" Paris said.
Hera glared. "Of course if you give it to me, fool!"
"It is a fine offer," Paris said.
"You won't get a better one," Hera said, and then she left. No haggling, no chance for discussion. Every inch the Queen of Olympus. Paris shrugged and got back to his dreams.
Athena was next. She appeared in full armor and glory blazing, but it was only a dream and Paris was not consumed.
"I offer you great wisdom," she said.
"For the apple?"
"If you can ask that, then you need my gift more than you think," Athena said, and that was all. She vanished.
The dream was calling Paris back. It threatened to turn into something pleasant and vivid, but Paris knew there was no point. He waited for what he knew was to come.
Where the other two simply appeared, Aphrodite made an entrance in a golden chariot pulled by lions. There was one other difference: where the other two told Paris what they would give him, Aphrodite asked a question.
"All right, Mortal. What do you want?"
"I want to fall in love before I die."
The goddess frowned. "Is that all?"
Paris remembered what Eris had told him. "Since I'm likely to die very soon, I consider that a great deal," Paris said. "And neither great wisdom nor great power will do me much good in these circumstances. So I'm asking for what I want."
The Goddess of Love nodded. "For a mortal, you're fairly quick. Yes, it's unlikely those other two harridans will let this go, even though by all right the apple is mine anyway. Very well; I'll grant you your wish if tomorrow morning you give the apple to me."
"I'll give you the most beautiful mortal woman on earth as your bride. You'll fall in love then, I wager."
"You mean Helen of Sparta? She's married to Menelaus!"
"You give me the apple and I'll arrange it."
"All right, but it's just a lump of gold," Paris said. He knew there was no point, but thought it needed to be said.
"Nothing is just what it is made of," Aphrodite said, and she drove her chariot right out of his dreams. The next morning Paris gave the apple to Aphrodite and sealed his doom.
Eris had been hearing the prayers for a week or more. It was very much a surprise; no one prayed to Eris. No one wanted to attract her attention. Now someone did. Someone familiar. Eris was too stunned to do much about it for a long time.
Finally she turned to her brother. "Ares, can I ask you something?"
Ares looked up from his new armor. "Hmmm? What is it? I'm busy. Hephaestus has no reason to love me and I just know there is a curse on this armor somewhere. I'm going to find it."
"Your armor can wait. I want to know: have you ever regretted something you've done?"
Ares grunted. "I'm a god. Why should I?"
"Don't you regret sleeping with Aphrodite, Hephaestus's wife? You should."
He laughed. "No, I regret getting caught. It was embarrassing. Do I regret sleeping with Aphrodite? No. In fact I'll do it again if I get the chance."
"Knowing that one you probably will," Eris said dryly. "So. Why the new armor? Especially since the Divine Blacksmith is still annoyed at you?"
"Couldn't wait. It's for the war, Sister. Haven't you heard? Paris of Troy has kidnapped Menelaus's winsome wife. There's to be a big war about it. I can hardly wait."
Eris didn't breathe for a while. Being a goddess it didn't really hurt her, but Ares apparently noted the changing colors in her face after a bit. "You didn't know? I'm surprised. It was all because of your apple, you know. Aphrodite told me the whole story. You've outdone yourself, Eris."
"Thank you," Eris said quietly. "I worked really hard on that apple." She turned to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"To see the oracles. As a goddess it's my prerogative to take an interest in the world."
The war was going very badly for Troy. Not too surprising, since most of the gods had lined up against Priam's city. Paris watched the battle from a palace window. Much had been made of the fact that he had shirked the fighting before now, but the truth of the matter was he was better suited to shepherding than fighting, and had never shown much interest in the latter before. Yet Hector was dead now, and without him Paris's options were fast diminishing. His armor had been brought, but he dismissed his servants and stood by the window, watching men die.
"I wish I had the choice over again," he said aloud, to no one in particular.
"Who would you have chosen then?"
Paris turned around. It was Eris. He hadn't seen her since the day of the Judgment. "I prayed that you would come."
"And I heard you," Eris said. "Finally. I suppose you have the right to see your Nemesis ... metaphorically speaking." She came to the window herself, looked out over the carnage below. "I'm the Goddess of Discord. I suppose I should be enjoying this."
"You don't look as if you are."
"It's the lot of goddesses to be defined by their impulses. I wanted revenge, but not this. I didn't know it was all pre-ordained."
"What do you mean, Eris?"
"I mean I've consulted oracles since. If it helps, take comfort that you were fated to choose Aphrodite. A free choice, yet all foretold. Don't try too hard to understand that. It doesn't help."
Paris laughed. "I knew I was doomed. I didn't know just how thoroughly. It's hard to take comfort from that."
Eris shrugged. "How is Helen?"
"Lovely almost beyond mortal comprehension. Also vain, self-centered and with as much wit as a rutting sow. No wonder Aphrodite picked her out."
"Aphrodite betrayed me. She got me Helen at the cost of this war with the Greeks! There must have been another way."
"There wasn't. I told you the war was fated, and even the gods don't muck with destiny."
Paris frowned. "How can you say that? Yes, you sent the apple but didn't this all really start because Zeus was trying to cheat fate?"
Eris smiled then, faintly. "No." Paris just looked at her, uncomprehending, and Eris went on, "As I told you: the oracle said that Thetis was destined to bear a child greater than the father. The oracle did not say, 'Thetis will bear a child who will one day overthrow Zeus.' If she had, Zeus would have been as doomed as you are. Yet there was a danger, and he moved to reduce it. He did what he could. That's what we all do, gods and mortals alike."
"I can do nothing."
"You can't do much," Eris corrected, "but that's not nothing. Take your bow and string it."
Puzzled, Paris did as she instructed. Eris selected an arrow from his quiver and daintily licked the barb. She handed the arrow to Paris. "I'm full of poison. That's my nature," she said. It sounded like an apology. "I've envenomed the tip. Shoot Achilles with it."
Paris just stared at the arrow. "What good will that do? Achilles is invulnerable; even Hector couldn't kill him."
"Achilles is mortal, just as you are. And he is fated to die in this war."
"So? Does that mean I'm fated to kill him?"
Eris smiled then, sadly. "You do see the difference. No, the oracle just said that he will die. This part isn't fate, Paris. This part is the thing you can change. It's a small thing, I know, but as I said we all do what we can."
Paris took the arrow. Achilles rampaged through the battlefield below like a force of nature, striking down Trojan warriors left and right. There was a light of battle in his eyes like a beacon, or a funeral pyre, or the flames that were beginning to rise within the city itself. The screams of the wounded and dying reached up to Paris' window.
"If I kill him, will it save my city?" Paris asked.
Eris shook her head. "No. Yet if you do this, perhaps, something of what it was may be spared. Some of your people may live. I don't know for certain. I do know that if Achilles carries this fight before his death no one will be spared."
"Then it's enough." Paris put the nock to the string.
Eris watched him almost shyly. "I almost forgot to ask. Did ... did you ever find love?"
"Yes, I think so," he said.
"I'm glad about that."
Paris smiled faintly. In fact, Paris didn't think she looked very happy at all, and he understood why. It felt good, understanding one thing the goddess did not.
Eris went on. "It was what you wanted, I mean. You deserved as much, despite Aphrodite's betrayal. At least she fulfilled that part of the bargain."
"No, she didn't."
"But you said..."
"That I fell in love. I did. It changes nothing, but it did happen."
Eris looked confused and, after that, just a little afraid. "Mortals die all the time," she said, as if to herself. "With or without our help. One more doesn't matter..." Her small hands balled into fists. "Oh, sod that!" Eris looked right at Paris. "I never should have made that damned apple," she said.
"Gods and mortals alike make mistakes, Eris. I should have given the apple to you."
Eris just stared for several moments. "But why?" she finally asked. "Because I made it?"
Paris smiled at her. "Most artisans do not own what they make. No, Eris. Because you never meant to harm me, and never played me false. There's beauty in that, and more than I had sense to realize. I should have given you the apple because it belongs to you by right. Kallisti. The Fairest."
For a moment Eris simply looked at him. "You would give the apple to me, the one responsible for all your misery?"
"Yes," Paris said. "I would."
"Mortals are such fools," she said, but it didn't sound like an insult this time. "Choose."
Paris turned back to the window and let the arrow fly.
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some stories are excellent, some senseless, undoubtedly all of them interesting in a way. I think many would find several fascinating. Definitely worth reading.