by George Potter
He found his first goddess on his fourteenth birthday. She was a slight and lovely creature with huge eyes, wild black hair and a smile that combined innocence and ignorance. She was standing on the corner, right outside his house, naked in the moonlight, shivering with cold.
He brought a blanket down with him, and wrapped her in a gentle cocoon. She sighed and leaned against him, grateful for the warmth and attention. He tried to lead her inside but she did not understand. He finally just picked her up and carried her.
Carefully, he laid her on the couch and propped her head with his favorite pillow. He made her tea with extra sugar and real cream. Those huge eyes glittered with unreadable emotion. She had no voice but a high and chiming laugh. She seemed to like the cartoons he played for her, smiling and gasping and laughing right on cue.
His father was disturbed, but said nothing. He simply left early for and stayed late at work. His mother worried but made the goddess breakfast. They had eggs and bacon and toast for the three days that she lived.
Then she withered quickly and died, gone in a few hours, leaving nothing but a vague scent of jasmine and the memory of a sweet laugh.
He folded the blanket and put it away, sure he would need it again soon. He cried a little and prayed to her every night, wishing for her back as he had wished her into existence.
His next goddess appeared a little over a month later, this time tall and slender, with hair of brilliant gold. She spoke, this one, a few simple words at least. She liked to wander around the apartment, examining everything closely, naked save for glory.
His father, utterly mortified, went to stay with his brother upstate, and his mother took to haunting the library and grocery stores, inventing errands, to avoid the divinity that had invaded their home.
He was happy, though, watching his goddess in her insatiable curiosity, her coltish motions and slender limbs almost a parody of grace. She was fascinated by everything, and was overjoyed to learn the names of common things.
A week that one lasted. A lovely week in a miserable winter.
"This can't keep happening," his mother told him as he wept in his room, hands clasped before him, knees sore and bruised from kneeling. "This is not the way the world is supposed to work, love."
"It's my fault, isn't it?" his father said. "I read you all those stupid myths when you were a baby. All those foolish stories of gods and men and them gettin' on together." His voice broke on the last word. "My bloody fault."
He ignored them both, and prayed harder, begging the universe to send him another goddess. To send a vision of beauty and love that would last.
But the universe chose to ignore him. He was almost twenty years old before he found another goddess, well away from frightening his parents and perhaps better suited to the care and feeding of the divine.
And divine she was, far more fully formed and complete than his earlier lost loves. She showed very little fear of anything, and came to him, finding his dorm on campus with no problem. She spoke in an eloquent tone, with a vocabulary larger than his own.
Tall, again, with a mane of red curls like spun copper. Green eyed, fair skinned, features so perfect that every artist on campus threw themselves at her feet, begging to paint or sketch her. She refused them sweetly, though. She had interest in him only, unwilling to share the loveliness that she offered as a gift.
Beyond her beauty she was kind hearted, and funny. She made his days complete and happy, from first light until he wrapped his arms around her in the dark, and breathed deeply of her lovely scent.
He allowed himself to hope; allowed himself to think that this time, she would stay.
He was wrong. One morning her smile was simply gone. Then the sweet gleam in her eyes. Then the words and music of her voice began to diminish. All that was bright and alive in her gradually drifting away.
He refused to give up so easily this time, spurred on by the sadness in the voice that called his name over and over. He bundled her against the cold and carried her, adrenaline and fear making him strong, across campus towards the infirmary, hoping feverishly that the medicine of man might slow or stop the maladies of heaven.
They never made it. Halfway there she simply began to fade away, growing lighter and less substantial in his arms. He fell to his knees, weeping, begging. There was just enough time for her to whisper his name once more, to gift him with a smile, and for the briefest of goodbye kisses.
Then she was gone, dissipated in the moonlight like night mist struck by the sun.
He howled his rage and loss at that uncaring moon. He had to be sedated, restrained.
They kept him for a week. In the end, he lied. He said his girlfriend had left him and he'd taken it badly. Said he'd over-reacted and was over it now.
He took a pistol into the woods and found a peaceful spot, and even a few more tears to shed. He placed the cold metal to his temple and closed his eyes, thinking of her divine face and how it had shone in the reflected light of the moon.
"Don't be a fool, lad," the voice said.
He whirled on it, startled. Several feet away stood an old man. He looked to be in his 80's, tired but not done yet with the world.
"You should ask yourself," he added gently, "what exactly you have done to deserve a goddess?"
"Who are you?"
His visitor merely laughed. "An old fool with scars on his knees from praying, and light in his soul from attempts to be worthy." The smile he wore was quite satisfied, as he turned to leave. "And there are some who say the two things are very much the same."
He dropped the pistol and simply stared, frozen in confusion, for several moments. The old man had nearly vanished by the time he recovered his wits, called out, and gave chase.
It was an impossible task. No matter how he hurried or what crafty trails he took, the old man stayed relentlessly ahead of him.
At last he found himself in a bind, cornered near the edge of the wood by brush and briar, somehow lost on a path he'd walked a thousand times. He saw his savior make his way to an expensive black car. He cried out once more, almost desperate.
The old man turned to look. He smiled and waved. "Be worthy!" he called, and opened the door.
There was the single brief flash of a face, smiling in greeting as his savior settled in. A face of divine beauty and luminous spirit, of huge dark eyes meant only for one lucky worshipper. A face that split his heart and mended it in an awful, transcendent split second.
The car pulled away and left him stunned. He struggled from the wood and made his way to his dorm, placating his worried room mate with kind lies. He was both empty of feeling and filled with an almost painful purpose.
He would prove himself worthy, he vowed.
He threw himself into his studies with renewed vigor, becoming a model student. He joined every philanthropic organization that the school boasted, often rising to a lead position in weeks. He helped to rebuild churches and flood destroyed homes. He donated money and raised even more with a ferocious intensity and depth of feeling that often frightened those who heard him speak.
After graduation he chose a career that paid barely a living wage sent him to the most abject places in the world, and he wore himself ragged trying to make those places a little better. He argued for the sick and the lame and the poorest of world, facing down councils and committees of the richest and most powerful.
Bridges and damns were built on his initiative, rivers were held back and farmland seeded under his lead. He carried antibiotics and clean water to plauge ravaged villages, and served the starving with his own hands. He cradled and comforted dying infants that no one wanted and taught camps filled with war orphans to read and write and count. He was thanked in the prayers of a dozen religions and twice that many languages.
Many marveled at his depth of commitment and compassion, and the word saint danced often near his name.
When praise came his way, he deflected. He gently refused awards and fellowships and suggested that those who wished to honor him could do so by helping others.
In truth, he often felt the possibility of his goddess close by, some deep resonating note pulsing through his soul. Fear and desire warred, but he always turned from it. He was not worthy yet, he whispered to himself. He would not survive the gaining and losing of another goddess. He must be absolutely sure that he had earned her favor this time. Absolutely sure.
Decades passed, as decades will. He never married and had no children, instead using his name and what money he gathered to help hundreds of children across the world, children who honored him as a father though they'd never met him. Who took his name as their own out of respect and with pride.
Finally, the day came that so many who loved and respected him dreaded. He was an old, tired man. He shouldn't live alone in his simple house, with only memories and the worth of his works to keep him company.
They sent a strapping male nurse with a signed paper, all legal and well intentioned. He was to be brought to a very fine nursing home, one of the best in the country. His stay there would be paid for by the donations of hundreds who were awed and inspired by his selflessness.
"No," the old man told his visitor. "I cannot leave."
The nurse was confused. "But why not, sir?"
The old man smiled with great joy. "Because she will be here soon, lad. She is finally coming, to stay this time." He could feel her approaching presence, that deep resonance in his very center, now so powerful that the entire world wavered in harmony with it.
"I see," said the nurse, secretly taking a needle filled with dreams from his bag. He'd do his best to slip the injection quickly and well, so as not to startle the poor thing.
He was moments away from doing so when the door opened. He turned to look, expecting his driver wondering at the delay. The old man broke into a delighted smile, and stood.
The nurse would later admit, to himself, that what he saw walk through the door was a woman. But to say that was almost painfully simple, like saying that the Sahara is dry or that the Atlantic is deep. What he saw was more than a woman. What he saw was the personification of beauty and truth and the ephemeral virtue of grace made visible.
Her hair was not like the sun, it was the Sun, billowing waves of some heat beyond flame. Her skin was not like the moon, it was the Moon, cold and beautiful and shining with mystery and promise. Her smile was the glory of Heaven, her eyes were the portals to a thousand versions of paradise.
She was Athena on the battlefield, the sword of the righteous. She was Diana in her chariot, crossing the star tumbled sky. She was Venus risen, creature of storm tossed sea and foam sculpted form. She was Love, she was Life, she was a Goddess.
The nurse fell to his knees, weeping and terrified. But mostly he felt despair -- that this vision was not for the likes of him. That he was not worthy and perhaps would never be.
The old man reached out with shaking arms. She flowed to him like sunlight across a meadow. The embrace was less like two people joining than a single soul discovering itself complete.
The room, the very house, was unworthy. It began to smolder from such heat and light.
"Will you stay?" the old man whispered, eyes burnt to blindness, voice almost gone.
No, the goddess whispered. You shall come with me. You have proven yourself worthy of more than this life.
And together they became something beyond light and heat and the nurse, maddened, fled their union.
He came to on the street, clothes stinking of smoke, hair charred and eyelashes burned away, skin red with the radiance he'd witnessed. The fire department and police had arrived, as well as an ambulance. A paramedic was asking him simple questions in a slow voice.
In front of him, the old man's house burned. They'd later blame it on faulty wiring and call it a tragedy. A great philanthropist dead because of the greed of others, news reports and reforming politicians would cry.
But the nurse, who'd never speak of what he'd seen and felt, knew better. He knew the old man was not dead. That the house burned for the same reason he had fled -- because it was unworthy of the sight of such divine love.
He looked on the great red and yellow flames and saw not a funeral pyre but a sacrificial alter, one final bright prayer.
And he felt himself changed by it.
He found himself praying, more and more often. He prayed not to the faith of his upbringing, nor to the God of his father. His prayers were neither promises nor pleas.
Instead, he prayed like a whispered love poem, an unabashed ode to a heaven with a mane of the sun, and eyes within which beauty and truth and worth became a single unquenchable flame.