Verse 29: FOLLOW ME
When Gloria woke Sunday morning, the first sight greeting her was Lex kneeling naked beside the bed, eyes closed, lips moving. She could not hear the words, but from his posture and the look of concentration on his face, she guessed he was praying. She waited for him to finish.
"Do you pray like that every morning?" she asked.
"Sometimes I wear clothing," he replied, getting back in bed. He kissed her briefly and she nestled in his arms. "I try to pray every morning, but I have never seen you do so. How do you worship?"
"I'm not that religious. I pray when the spirit moves me, you might say, and then only in church. You understand Church?"
"Some kind of temple?"
"Essentially," she agreed. "I'm what we call a Christian. Some of us pray every day, but most only on Sunday. That's today, by the by."
"Isn’t every day Sunday? Nevermind… silly of me to ask. Are you going to church today?"
It was, she realized, an excellent question. Considering the rollercoster week she'd had, why not take some time for introspection and soul-searching. "I believe I will," she told him.
He ran a finger lightly along her collarbone. "When must you leave?"
She playfully batted his hand away. "If you keep that up, I won't." She sat up and looked at the bedside clock. "It's almost nine. I'd better get a move on or all the good parking spaces will be taken." Grabbing her bathrobe from the bedpost, she rose and wrapped it around herself. "How would you feel about making breakfast?"
"What would you like?"
"Surprise me," she answered, then paused at the bathroom door. "You're good at that. I'll be down in about twenty minutes."
Twenty-two minutes later, showered, combed, and wearing her Sunday best, Gloria found Lex at the stove. "I am almost finished," he announced. "I hope this will be to your liking."
"It smells… interesting, " she said, taking a seat at the table. "Dare I ask?"
"Milady ordered a surprise, and if I told there would be none," he replied, emerging from the kitchen two plates in hand. He set them down and returned to the kitchen. Gloria looked at hers – scrambled eggs and toasted bread – not exactly food from another planet on the face of it. Lex returned bearing a china teapot she did not recognize, whose contents he poured into two mugs already on the table.
Gloria's experiences with men who claimed they could cook had not been pleasant ones. Put to the test, their efforts generally compared unfavorably to dorm food. But it smelled good and looked normal and nothing was burnt so she threw caution to the wind and took half a forkful of the eggs and prepared to smile through gritted teeth.
"Well?" he asked. "Surprised?"
By way of answer, she took another forkful, savoring the amazing blend of flavors this time. She did not know simple eggs could taste this good. They were robust and tangy and filled with little bits of sweet, spicy something. "More than you know. What is it?"
"Plover eggs with alligator sausage, smoked hulkafish, and spring onions, plus some spices," he told her. "Alas, I had no tragolysk cheese, so I make do with something of yours called havarti."
She resisted the urge to ask what a tragolysk was and instead opted to continue eating. She was glad he had not mentioned the alligator before, though. He pushed a small crockery jar toward her. "Try this on your toast."
Spreading some of the dark mixture on her bread, she asked, "What is it?" she asked.
He replied smugly. "Better than yours."
It turned out to be the best blackberry-currant preserves she'd ever tasted and it wonderfully complemented the nutty bread that must also have come out of Lex's bag. She took a sip of tea. "And what kind of strange brew have you prepared for my untutored tastebuds?"
"Red Zinger. I found it in your cupboard." He shrugged. "I liked the name and the box was pretty."
"I feel guilty that no one else is enjoying this sumptuous repast." She looked around the room and noticed the empty futon. "Have you seen Zoot? Did she leave?"
"If so, she left without her trousers." He indicated an inside-out pair of jeans on the floor. "I doubt she would flaunt convention thus."
"With Zoot one never knows," she observed. "Maybe she's down on the beach sunbathing. I was going to offer her a ride home." Gloria drank some tea. A sudden idea struck her. "Say, Lex, would you be interested in coming to church with me?"
He thought about it, then shook his head. "It would not be proper. In the Imperius, it is unwise to visit the temple of a God you do not worship, without an express invitation from a priest. "
"You don't worship all the gods of Novagrove?"
Lex laughed. "No one worships all the Gods. First of all, they number move than 200,000. Few know all their common names. Just saying the Praises for each would take weeks. More important, many are evil. Do I look evil to you?"
Feeling embarrassed despite her justifiable ignorance on the topic of alien deities, Gloria resolved to remedy the situation. "Can I ask how many you do worship?"
"Of course." He reeled off the names, counting on his fingers as he went. "First is always Blessed Olomek, head of the Pantheon and Supreme Arbiter of Good. Next, her sister T'Shion, Supreme Arbiter of all that is Evil."
Gloria looked aghast, "I thought you didn't pray to evil gods!"
Lex blinked. "T'Shion is not evil. She merely decides what is. I ask her to protect me and mine against that which she deems evil, and if you keep interrupting I shall lose my place." His grin indicated he was not serious.
"I'll hold any more questions until the end," she promised.
"Very well. Third is Solqava, Goddess of Suns, Giver of Life, and Patroness of the Imperius. Four, Five, and Six are other gods of the High Pantheon: Ule, Magia, and Ekili, who represent Knowledge and History, Beauty and Sexuality, and the Lands of all Worlds, respectively. Then Yashia – Music, Umiara – Creativity, Gillas – Minstrels, and Kindra – Enjoyment. That makes ten. While on the road, like now, I invoke Iniope Isharilindra, who watches over sailors and others who must venture far from home. At such times, I also call upon Angira the Ferret, Guide of Worlds, to guide my footsteps."
As if suddenly interested in the conversation, Warlock trundled over and stood with his forepaws on Gloria's leg. She picked him up and offered him a piece of toast, which he accepted gratefully. "That’s twelve," she said. "Any more?"
"One. Today I added a special prayer to Flaym."
"God of Fire?" she guessed.
He looked at her adoringly with those intense blue eyes. "Goddess of Love," he said.
Suddenly Gloria felt an overpowering urge to rip off all her clothes and demand he take her right there, on the table. Instead, she finished her eggs and waited for sanity to reassert itself. "Thirteen is considered an unlucky number 'round these parts," she pointed out, willing her voice not to betray her desires. "Maybe you should add another just to be on the safe side."
Warlock chose that moment to beg for more toast. Gloria gave him the crust.
She half expected him to scoff at such superstitious nonsense, but he took her advice at face value. "My people consider thirteen sacred, but if it makes you feel better, I also say Praises to…" he counted quickly but did not say the names, "ten others, always ending with T'Marna, in honor of my sister Vinafra."
Gloria, recalling Lex’s story from the day before, grinned mischievously. "Soo… let me see if I’ve got this straight. You thank heaven for little girls?"
"I fail to see the humor, but yes, I do."
"So you pick which gods you worship?"
"Who better?" he replied. "Are things all that different here?"
She had to concede the point. "In this country, everyone is free to worship any divine being they choose, and before you ask, yes, there are different Gods – or at least names – for different religions. Most of them believe their concept of God is the only correct one."
Lex offered Gloria some more tea. She put her hand over the cup, so he refilled his own instead. "What is your God’s name?" he asked.
"Just God actually. I only have one, so there's really no need to differentiate."
"And your God is the god of…?"
"Um… everything, I guess. We believe He created the universe, and that He's omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. He always was and He always will be."
"That strikes me as an awful lot of responsibility for one deity to handle," Lex commented. "We too have that entity. We call him Vara the Prime Mover, but no one prays to him because he never listens and isn't actually in charge of anything. Does your God listen to your prayers?"
"Maybe, but I personally doubt it." Suddenly this conversation seemed too close to the bone for comfort and she carried the dishes into the kitchen to rinse them off.
Lex did not pick up on the subtle clue. "Then who makes the sun rise or the tides ebb and flow?"
"Those things just happen," she answered.
"Nothing 'just happens'. Everything is cause and effect. The Gods are the Universe’s operating system, as Hannah might put it. Our prayers empower them, so they can perform their appointed tasks. In return they give us life, protection, aid, and guidance in times of need. I know this to be true as surely as…" He paused. "As I know I love you."
"I envy you your convictions," she said, "but I'm not that certain. About God, that is." She consulted her watch. It was time to go. "Lex, I'm no theologian, but the short answer is that it comes down to faith. In the last analysis, that's all we have – no proof, just faith." That said, she gave him a quick kiss goodbye.
Sunday Best and motorcycles not mixing well, she took the car. During the drive, she mulled over why she was doing this at all. Did she really expect some sort of cosmic answer to a question she had not yet formulated? She held little hope for a voice from a burning bush or a giant disembodied arm holding a flaming sword pointing in the right direction. She didn’t expect a sign. A gentle hint would do. She'd settle for a cryptic text message on her cell-phone.
Not that her rational mind expected even that minor miracle. The last time she felt like her prayers had really been answered was when she'd been accepted into Yale's School of Medicine with only a 3.85 GPA. Her prayers for the life of her father had certainly fallen on deaf ears. Bert Robinette's was a classic "bad things/good people" situation. He'd been loving, supportive, charitable, and had built a successful business through industry rather than sharp practice or ethical shortcuts. He'd borne life's downturns with grace and optimism. Gloria had never seen him lift a fist in anger or curse anything more animate than a recalcitrant lawnmower. By all rights, a man like that deserved to die peacefully in his sleep at age 105 with grandchildren and great-grandchildren in attendance – not the way he'd left them, shy of his 57th birthday after a year of steadily increasing pain and debility.
God owed her one, Gloria decided as she took the last remaining parking space in the lot on Gravel Street. She killed the engine, cutting off the Clash in mid-rave and sat in silence considering the Big Question. She came up with nothing more specific than "What do I do now, O Lord?"
The turnout was sparse, befitting an August Sunday with good sailing weather and no Sunday School. The parishioners' demographic skewed towards the elderly. The guest pastor, on the other hand, looked barely as old as Gloria herself. Fresh-faced, female, and probably newly ordained and awaiting a probationary posting at a large urban parish, she looked like the stiff white collar chafed. She led the faithful through the liturgy somewhat tentatively, trusting like a neophyte equestrian that her horse knew the bridle paths better than she. Gloria dutifully echoed the congregants' pleas for God's mercy and truth, waiting for a glimmer of an indication that God listened. Her ears pricked up during Psalm 98, with its exhortation to "Sing unto the Lord a new song," but started feeling like she was clutching at straws.
The pastor motioned for the congregation to sit, and everyone settled in for the homily.
"Summer means different things to different people. To children, it means no more pencils and no more books. To local businesses, it means an influx of tourist dollars. To Hollywood, summer is the time to roll out the big blockbusters. To most of us, it means longer days we can enjoy with our families. Today, I address the nature of family values, words that have taken on unfortunate political overtones of late. What is family? Is it blood? Is it marriage? Is it some other form of kinship less traditional? I am reminded of the Old Testament story of Ruth. "
Gloria wondered how she could slip away without calling attention to herself. If she'd been a real doctor, she'd have a pager she could brandish as she dashed out on the pretext of an emergency. But she stayed in her pew as the Reverend Junior Miss recapped the tale of Naomi, her husband Elimelech and sons Mahlon and Chilion, a family from Bethlehem, who during a time of famine sojourned in the greener pastures of Moab. The sons took wives from among the local maidens, one named Orpah, the other Ruth. But Naomi's husband and sons died in that foreign land and, learning that the Lord had lifted the famine, she determined to return to the land of Judah, accompanied by her daughters-in-law. When they reached the border, Naomi told Orpah and Ruth to return to Moab and make new lives for themselves amid their own kind. Orpah kissed Naomi farewell and departed, but Ruth would not go.
"Naomi said 'Behold, your sister-in-law is gone back to her people, and to her god: return you after your sister-in-law.'" At this point, the pastor lifted her voice and read with the strength of conviction. "But "Ruth said, 'Do not entreat me to leave you, and to return from following after you, for where you go, I will go; and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God; where you die, will I die, and there will I be buried: The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death part you and me.'"
Gloria was so dumbstruck she missed the rest of the sermon. She had asked for a sign, but this? This was a veritable billboard! When the pastor concluded by pointing out that this simple act of love and devotion led to Ruth becoming the grandmother of King David, and thus the ancestress of our Savior Jesus Christ, Gloria could take no more. As soon as the congregation rose to their feet, Gloria slipped out the door and practically ran for her car.
God had spoken to her! Through the words of His anointed minister, God himself had shown her the path to follow. She turned on the ignition. The radio came on and she remembered the song that had been playing when she arrived: It had been "Should I Stay or Should I Go"! Another sign! That had been the Question and "Where you go, I will go" was the Answer! Gloria's heart sang. Could anything possibly be plainer? Whatever happened, she had to stay with Lex. He went, she went with him. He failed, he'd stay with her and damn the consequences. She could not wait to share this revelation with her beloved, and barely noticed when she drove past Gilda's.
Halfway home, though, doubt set in, and by the time she pulled into the driveway, she had seen the whole episode as wishful thinking carried to extremes. She wasn't some Biblical heroine. She lived in the real world, dammit, and Lex did not. Judah and Moab were different countries, not different dimensions, for Christ's sake!
Head and heart warred as she sat in silence. If anything, she felt more conflicted than when she set out on this misbegotten pilgrimage. Her heart told her "Go with it! Embrace your destiny!" Her head demanded to know the where, how, and even the ineffable why.
"Signs and portents should come with clear instruction manuals," she grumbled, slamming the car door behind her.
When she got inside, she saw Hannah reading and Nate explaining the finer points of some videogame to Lex. Both kids dropped what they were doing and ran up to her before she could even set down her purse. They jabbered excitedly, stepping all over each other's words, and she could not follow anything they were saying. Lex stood behind them, silent and solemn.
"One at a time!" Gloria protested loudly, cutting through the chatter, Both children stopped talking, then both resumed again with no loss of enthusiasm. "Enough!" she yelled. Blessed silence. "Hannah, you first."
"I figured it out," Hannah began.
"You did not!" Nate interrupted. "It was my idea completely!"
"It was not!" Hannah retorted. "You were just playing your stupid game and –"
"It's not stupid! The hovercycle gave me the idea –"
"Well, there are no hovercycles in the plan, Beefy, so it wasn't much of an idea, now was it? Life isn't a videogame. There are physical laws involved."
"Physical laws?" Nate scoffed sarcastically. "Everything's physical laws with you! Well, without my inspiration your physical laws wouldn't mean diddlysquat!'
"Will you both please shut up?" Gloria beseeched. Nate and Hannah glowered at each other. "Lex," she implored, "can you please tell me what this ruckus is about?"
He rested a large hand on each of the disputants' shoulders. The contact seemed to calm them and they both looked up at him expectantly. "Hannah and Nate have together devised a plan."
"Me mostly," Nate interjected under his breath.Lex continued. "They think they know how I can get through the portal and return to Novagrove. Is that not wonderful news?"