The God Who Came to Dinner 

by Tom Holt

   At that time, you must understand, I was making a living of sorts writing fantasy novels. So it was, to a significant extent, all my own fault.
   My stuff was plain, industrial-strength, injection moulded heroic saga, all blond young men riding bareback through the dew saluting the rising sun with their swords before breakfasting on berries, acorn and roast squirrel. Once you hit on the formula you can keep it up pretty well indefinitely, just so long as you don't look down. Or, to paraphrase the poet Gilbert, though I'm anything but clever, I can write like that for ever.
   These things tend to come in flavours, like milk shakes, and my stuff was the then fashionable Celtic flavour. Celtic is probably the easiest. It certainly lends itself to semi-automated production techniques, to the extent that someone a little bit cleverer than me could probably find a way of interfacing a basic plot-and-dialogue programme with the Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology on CD-ROM and spend the rest of the day sitting by the pool with a long, cool drink.
   Being a traditionalist and (I flatter myself) an artisan if not an actual craftsman, I preferred to do most of it manually. And it was while I was doing my daily 5,000 words and describing yet another open-air banquet under the stars... Yes indeed, nuts, berries and roast squirrel. My characters have it in for squirrels. They can't see one gambolling innocuously up a tree without fumbling for the old bow and arrow. Perhaps squirrels were bigger in those days, I remember reflecting, lending some minor frisson of danger to the proceedings, although they'd have had to be significantly larger and fiercer than our modern bushy-tailed chums to inject the spice of danger into following a wounded squirrel into the long grass.
   I was just letting my mind drift away down this neglected waterway (Hemingway could have pulled it off, `In the autumn the crop circles were still there, but we did not go there anymore...') when the doorbell rang.
   `Yes?' I said.
   `Hello,' he replied.
   You can't work in an industry for any length of time without absorbing at least some of the technical data. It didn't therefore take me long.
   `The triple bull's head,' I said, `narrows it down to a choice of four. Take into account the serpentine legs ending in fishtails and the bag of grain in the left hand and you might as well have a lapel badge with your name on and have done with it. Cernunnos,' I said. `Celtic god of crops, rainfall and standing around watching other people work. Am I right?'
   He nodded, in triplicate.
   `It's one of those telegram things, right? My, but we've come a long way from the doggerel-reciting strippers of my youth. Celtic godograms, yet. And they try to make out we're not a sophisticated nation.'
   He wrinkled three pairs of brows. `What,' he enquired, `are you blathering on about?'
   It was then that I had an uncomfortable feeling. It wasn't the heads so much - I've seen some pretty convincing prosthetic heads in the theatre and the movies. But the legs were something else. They were, in effect, two fingers to gravity, anatomy and the late Charles Darwin. And, because it was absolutely impossible for those legs to be supporting Chummy's weight, it inevitably followed that he was hovering about six inches from the ground. Now I'm not saying that George Lucas and the boys couldn't rustle up something that could cover that but they'd need a budget equivalent to Western defence expenditure for a decade, and I don't suppose the kissogram people have that sort of money.
   When you've eliminated the wildly improbable, the impossible must be the truth.
   `You are him, aren't you ?' I said.
   `Yes,' he replied. `Can I come in? I'm starting to feel a bit conspicuous standing out here in the street.'
   `I am indeed - yes, thanks, lemon and one sugar - the god Cernunnos,' he said, and took a biscuit. `Sorry I took so long.'
   `To answer your invocation,' he replied. `By the way, I hope I'll do. Taranis is off today and I'm the duty god. I've got a power of attorney thing somewhere if you need it for the paperwork.'
   `You invoked the god Taranis,' he replied. `Didn't you?'
   Denial froze on my lips like chocolate sauce poured on ice cream. He was right. No point in denying it when the magic words were leering greenly at me from the screen on my desk. Would it do any good to explain that it was only a story I was writing, sorry to have troubled you? There was sure to be a call-out charge and maybe a prosecution for wasting divine time.
   `Yes,' I accordingly replied. `I did.'
   `Ah.' The god leaned back in my armchair and kicked his boots off - as soon as he was through the door he'd changed into a human, greatly to my relief. On the debit side, he'd changed into a young man with long hair, a fancy embroidered waistcoat and cowboy boots but it was better than bulls' horns and snakes. `Good. Right, what have you got lined up for today?'
   `I beg your pardon?'
   He glanced at my clock. `Half past four,' he said. `Give me half an hour to freshen up and we can get on with it right away. What's first, the wicker cages?'
   `Do say it's the wicker cages. Tranny'll be furious if it is. A simple soul, our Tran, except in his incarnation as the swineherd of the sun. Not much call for that nowadays though,' he added, and sighed. `Not much call for any of it, come to that. In fact, Tran hasn't had a day's work in 400 years. Funny, that. He only goes to the dentist once every Halley's Comet and the moment he's out of the office...'
   `Excuse me,' I said.
   `Sorry. Yes?'
   `Would you,' I asked politely, `please explain?'
   The worst thing about being a god (Cernunnos explained) is the boredom. Talk about been there, done that, got the votive offering. It was bad enough when we were full-timing. Now we're just - what's the word? Consultants. Now we're just consultants, it's enough to make you cry in your beer.
   Yes, consultants. Means we're too burnt-out to be any use but we own too much of the equity for them to be able to get rid of us completely. So we hang on, grimly. I mean, what the hell else can we do? We live for ever. You lot might be able to hack it through your twilight years on gardening, grandchildren and golf, but we can't. All right for you - all you need to do is keel over and fast forward to the Second Coming. We've got to go the long way round.
   So, when we do get an invocation, of course we make the most of it. Out of the office, all expenses paid, and a bunch of devoted worshippers poised to dedicate themselves to performing our every whim. And the really cool part of it is, of course, the new lot have to do all the work.
   The work, yes. Raising the sun, growing the crops, all that stuff. Answering prayers. Smiting perjurers. Actually, I used to quite like that bit, though I never was much good at it. Usually it was a case of ten oaks trees needlessly chaffed for one direct hit on a bearer of false witness and even then the bugger'd as often as not be wearing rubber boots or something. Gross anachronism, of course, but if they played by the rules we wouldn't be out to smite them in the first place.
   So, as soon as the rest of the congregation get here, we can make a....
   What do you mean, just you? Just you and thirty helpless prisoners of war bound hand and foot in tallow-soaked wicker cages?
   Oh. I see. Just you.
   `Yes,' I confirmed. `Just me. And no wicker cages.'
   `OK. Right. Fine. It's been a long time, you see, and I know I'm a bit out of touch. So, just feasting and sacrifices and the mead-horn overflowing...'
   `There's some cans in the fridge,' I said.
   `And I've got some ham left and I think there's some bread and a tin of pilchards.'
   `Excuse me.' The god frowned. `I don't want to seem pushy or anything, but if that's your idea of showing your supreme being a good time, I'm glad I peaked early. I expect you pray a lot, too.'
   `Well,' I admitted, `no, actually I don't.'
   `That's something, I suppose,' Cernunnos replied. `The real bummer with hallowed ancestral rituals is, well, the scope for variety is a trifle limited, you know? And when you've heard the same bloody service three times a day for 2,000 years, it makes you want to start revising the old scriptures, starting with Thou shalt not destruct-test the patience of the Lord thy God. OK, then, just what did you have in mind?'
   I sucked in a deep breath. I have no oak trees in my house. I do have a rather nice old oak settle thing which used to belong to my grandfather but it hasn't been a tree, as such, since Prince Albert started shaving. Nor was I wearing rubber-soled shoes.
   `I really am terribly sorry,' I said, feeling with my toe for the carpet (which had a foam rubber underlay, although I'm not sure that'd have done me any good) `but I seem to have called you on something of a wild goose chase.'
   `I see.' Cernunnos rubbed his chin. `You mean in my incarnation as the patron deity of the hunt, small mammals and wildfowling division? No problem, can do. I'll just change into my avatar and we can catch the evening flight...'
   `A fool's errand,' I amended, and then quickly changed that to a false alarm. `The invocation was quite accidental. You see, I'm writing a book and one of the characters -'
   `Oh.' His face fell. `So you didn't...'
   `And you don't...'
   He shrugged. `I see,' he said, sadly. `Quite all right..Accidents will happen. Don't suppose you meant any disrespect by it.'
   I felt as if I'd just broken the headmaster's study window and someone else had owned up. `That's really very decent of you,' I said.
   `Ah well.' He shrugged again. `To err is human, to forgive divine. Just try to be more careful in the future.'
   `I will, I promise.'
   `And,' he added brightly, `you've got the rest of your life to make it up to me so it's not exactly going to be a dead loss. Are you sure there're no wicker cages lying around that you've forgotten you had? In the attic, or something?'
   To extend the simile, the boy who'd just owned up in my place was now telling the headmaster I'd promised him a fiver if he threw the stone. `Excuse me-' I said
   `What exactly do you mean,' I enquired, as calmly as I could - a bit like tackling the Great Fire of 1666 with a soda syphon - ` by the rest of my life to make it up to you? I mean, I really am truly sorry, but...'
   `Well.' The god gave me a funny look. `Leaving the intentions completely to one side for a minute, you have effectually invoked a god, using the proper procedures and the prescribed forms, and here I am.'
   `Yes, but...'
   `And here,' he went on, his voice now slightly tinted with the faintest blush of petulance, `I stay, until the cult revival comes to an end and nobody believes in me any more. Then I can go home. Or rather,' he amended, with a slight shudder, `back to the office. Till then, it's business as usual. It may only be a congregation of one but I've always held the view that quality's what counts in the final analysis.'
   `But I...'
   `You do believe in me, don't you? Well, there's a silly question. You can't not because here I am. And here,' he added with a tiny garnish of malice, `I stay.'
   I swallowed hard. `You mean,' I whispered, `I'm stuck with you? For the rest of my life?'
   Cernunnos nodded. `Ah,' he said, `enthusiasm. It's what makes it all worth while.'
   A god about the house may sound like it has a potential upside. I'm here to tell you, it doesn't.
   My tentative suggestions over the next few days that he might just find it amusing and a novel experience to muck in and make himself useful were greeted with a mixture of responses ranging from tolerant scorn to near-arctic offence. It became clear immediately that rolling up his sleeves and drying while I washed was a non-starter. I still maintained that he was a god and the Miracle of the Ironing of the Five Thousand had a nice, contemporary ring about it. His response to that was a fierce refusal to prostitute his craft, a brief speech about the integrity of the supernatural, and a zap of static that loosened two fillings. In any event, he relented enough to tell me now that he was just a consultant, there was a limit to what he could do, miracle wise, even if he wanted to. He certainly had plenty of magic but it was more your Industrial Light And variety - loud bangs and flashes, things turned into other things, maybe a plague of tadpoles if he worked up to it and stuck to decaff for a day or so beforehand - rather than serious tampering with the fabric of reality. And, apparently, in order to carry out domestic chores, produce wealth or do anything else remotely utilitarian, you have to take the back off reality and get in among the cogs and springs up to your wrists. Because, he explained, Life isn't like that. Which, I had to admit, made a kind of sense.
   The downside, of course, was that I had on my hands a bored superhuman sensation-seeker with the mentality and attention span of a hyperactive nine-year-old. And failure to keep him amused and entertained was probably going to result in a lot worse than grizzles and the occasional outbreak of bed-wetting.
   He shook his head. `You people nowadays, you don't seem to know the meaning of the word. Take that place we went to last night. Some of the things they put on my plate were bright green.'
   `No wonder you lot are so scrawny and effete. Hasn't anybody ever told you what you're supposed to do with the stuff? You feed it to a cow and then, in due course, you eat the cow. It's one of those rare instances where it doesn't pay to cut the middleman.'
   `All right, then. Wine.'
   `That's fine,' he said, `up to a point. But you and your pansy associates just curl up and go to sleep after the first nine hours and it's no fun drinking on your own.'
   Cernunnos shook his head. `No disrespect,' he said. `But let me put it this way. Mortal women - did you ever have those Rubik Cube things down here? There was a craze for them up our way a century or so back. Well, once you've worked out how to do it, every possible permutation, there just isn't the incentive, you know?'
   `Um,' I replied. `All right, then, you suggest nothing..'
   `OK.' Cernunnos folded his arms decisively. `Wars,' he said.
   `Did you,' I croaked, `just say wars?'
   `That's right.' The god nodded. `A bit jejune, perhaps, but you know what they say about simple things.'
   `Yeah, wars. The stricken field. The groans of the dying mingled with the ululations of the victors as the ranks of spears sway like a cornfield in the wind...'
   `... While above the shouting and the clashing of honed steel, the God stands and holds in his hand the golden scales...'
   `Let me,' I said, `just stop you there for a moment. Does the phrase atomic bomb mean anything to you?'
   He looked puzzled. `No,' he said.
   `Mutually assured destruction? Three minutes warning?'
   `You've lost me.'
   I explained.
   `Of all the...'
   `It wasn't me,' I said defensively. `I wasn't even born.'
   `... Load of bone-headed killjoys...'
   I wiped my forehead. `So can we just blue-pencil -?'
   `I suppose so.' He frowned, and then his eyes lit up. `Adventure,' he said. `Strange quests. Marvellous deeds of hand and eye which will live for ever in...'
   `Just come with me,' I said, and led him to the window.
   `That,' I said, pointing, `is called Birmingham. It's all I have to offer. If you can see any cloud-capped mountains or enchanted castles let me know and I'll cut us some sandwiches.'
   He sighed, nodded and sat down again. `All right, then,' he said. `What do you do?'
   Strange, how different things look different to different people.
   Be that as it may. If there is a heaven (and my views on this point are rather more fluid than they used to be, understandably enough) I sincerely hope that the apartments there set aside for Uncle Walt are in the nice part of the complex with a view out over the clouds and decent plumbing.
   `Tell me again,' he said, `the word you use for the magic mirror that can show you the far-away and the never-was and which brings forth the heavenly music.'
   `Videos,' I said.
   `And the really strange ones,' he went on. `Where the animals talk in the tongues of men and the colour are bright as it is always summer.'
   `Winnie the Pooh,' I replied. `The jungle Book. The Hundred and One Dalmatians.'
   `Extraordinary,' he said, releasing a long sigh. `And to think you did that all by yourselves with no help from us. Makes you wonder why we bother, really.'
   I smiled awkwardly. After all, I just rented the bloody things. `Glad you like them,' I said. `We can watch Bambi again this afternoon, if you like.'
   `Can we?'
   Oh, I thought, for crying out loud. And then I thought, yes. Yes, please. Anything rather than Well, if we took away the nuclear bomb whatsits, we could still have quite an interesting war. What are those things that go bang? Since the god appeared to have regressed, on his timescale, something like a thousand and eighty-nine-years, I reckoned that as long as the supply of cute flicks held out, there was a chance of waking up next morning to find the roof still on and the pavements relatively corpse-free.
   (And what, are you wondering, is it really like living with a god?)
   To be absolutely straight with you, gods are no different from any other sort of unwanted pest who come and colonise your spare bedroom, eat your food, drink your beer and coffee, fail to put the butter back in the fridge on a hot day, leave dirty marks on the towels, put their feet up on the furniture and never put books back where they got them from. They're no worse - they know how to use the toilet and they don't burn holes in the upholstery with their numinous auras - but neither are they any better and there are certainly no fringe benefits whatsoever. They will not, for example, forecast the winners of horse races (or at least not accurately) and they refuse point blank to turn base metal into gold or even water into wine. From my close observation of one particular specimen, I can't decide whether this is Won't or Can't, although if I had to make a decision I would go for the former. I have to admit that I'm a bit shaky nowadays on the Psalms of David but I do remember quite a lot about dwelling in the House of the Lord for ever. If that's supposed to be one of the special prizes I'll just take the wooden spoon and run, thank you very much.
   But worst of all, for someone who was at that time making his living out of the Celt business, was the bugger's apathy and ignorance when it came to the finer points of Celtistry and, most aggravating of all, his own religion. He neither knew nor cared. It didn't take long for me to come to form the opinion that any burning bush with Cernunnos on the other end of the line would probably come up with OK, my people can talk to your people, one of these days we really must do lunch.
   All this time, of course, I wasn't getting any work done. And the wolf, who at the best of times has a kennel outside my door with his own rubber bone and now with his name on it, had taken to swaggering about on the landing as if he owned the place. I had a bunch of lame-brained sunburnt young idiots hanging around an enchanted well with nothing to do (serve the idle bastards right, of course. In my young day characters in books made their own amusements and still had change out of a halfgroat) and an editor reminding me forcefully of approaching deadlines. No earthly use, of course. Even when my celestial freeloader was catatonic in front of the video, I couldn't do a hand's turn. Understandably enough, I maintain. I defy anybody to be even remotely convincing about the Tuatha De Danaan when unseen choristers are maliciously hammering out Winnie-the-Pooh, Winnie-the-Pooh, willy-nilly silly old Bear in his inner ear.
   How to get rid? Good question.
   My only idea was to try to throw the summoning process into reverse. That, however, was more easily conceptualised than done. There are countless invocations to gods down there behind the sofa cushions of literature - rather fewer incantations designed to put the divine suitcases out on the pavement. Evil spirits, yes. Say the right magic words and you can rid yourself of the forces of darkness as effortlessly as flushing the bog. Getting shot of the soi-disant good guys is another kettle of apples entirely.
   I tried another tack. To dislodge a broken cotter pin, drive in a punch. Likewise, to remove an unwanted god, summon another god the sight of whom your celestial squatter can't stick at any price. I set to work with a big pile of books on Celtic myth and legend and a pair of road-mender's earmuffs.
   One of the reasons why we in the fantasy business are so keen on Celtic mythology is that nobody actually knows anything about it. Apart from the names of some of the gods and a few garbled myths preserved in later written sources, the myths and legends of the Ancient Ones have long since taken their rightful place in the black plastic bag of history. This means you can basically do what you like with the Celts and not cringe every time the letterbox goes snap in case you've got another thick wad of Dear-sirs-are-you-aware letters.
   You only become aware of the downside when you urgently need hard data. For example, the name, address and (for choice) fax number of any particular god's mortal enemy. Now if I'd had the sense to summon Loki, I could have got shot of him in 10 minutes flat by summoning Thor. Likewise Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. There is a dock leaf to virtually every divine nettle. As for Cernunnos, however, either he was universally liked and respected by his colleagues (something I would have a certain amount of difficulty believing) or else the recipe had gone gurgling down the plughole with the cultural bathwater. And I wasn't going to take a chance and guess. Supposing I summoned Lug or Manannan and they wanted to watch the snooker instead?
   I was pondering this setback and wishing, reasonably enough, that I had been born a frog and died young, when there was a hammering at the front door. I answered it.
   `Right,' said my new visitor. `Where is he?'
   `Who?' I said. Superfluously. I knew who she wanted just by looking at her.
   She was about six foot three and built like an East German discus thrower. Correction. Imagine that you'd melted down two East German discus throwers and used the result to make one big one. In her fist she held a big bronze key, which of course meant (I'm sure you're way ahead of me) that I was in the presence of the goddess Epona. As explained above, nobody knows what most of the Celtic lot were gods of, but in Epona's portfolio didn't include glowering, intimidation and looming snottily in doorways, it has to go down as a sad misapplication of resources.
   `Men!' she snorted. `Look, don't think you can cover up for the nasty little jerk because I'm omniscient and I know he's here somewhere. Either you show me where's crawled under or I can blow this ghastly little slum to smithereens and sieve him out of the rubble. Your choice.'
   `This way.'
   Actually, I'm not sure she was actually technically omniscient because if she had been she'd have known to duck under my reproduction Louis Quinze cut-glass chandelier.
   `Sorry, I thought you'd have...'
   `I'm taking official note of that,' she growled, picking splinters of glass out of her eyebrows, `in my capacity as Goddess of Accident Prevention and Interior Design. In your next incarnation but two you will now be a hedgehog. But not,' she added grimly, `for terribly long.'
   She kicked open the sitting-room door. I heard a strangled cry. I followed.
   Epona was standing, hands on hips, in front of the television screen. Cernunnos had half risen from my nice new Parker-Knoll recliner and half turned himself back into his divine form, which I assume is some of celestial etiquette thing. The passage of his scaly legs didn't do wonders for my expensive Scotchgarded loose covers.
   `Try and explain,' Epona snarled. `Go on, just try it and we'll see just how well you conduct electricity.'
   Cernunnos slumped back into the chair and I heard something go rrrp. I made a swift command decision and decided not to press the point.
   `Gosh,' said Cernunnos. `Er, hello. What're you doing...?'
   `Five days,' continued the goddess. `Five days I've been hanging around outside that bloody cinema. Boy, when you stand someone up, you sure don't muck about.'
   Cernunnos' face fell. `Oh hell,' he muttered. `I'd forgotten all about...'
   `Five days!' Epona leaned forward and prodded Cernunnos savagely in the neck with her key. `Of all the inconsiderate...'
   `Look, I'm terribly sorry, but this job...'
   `Bugger your stupid job.'
   `But, Freckles...'
   `Don't you Freckles me.'
   Time, I told myself, to withdraw unobtrusively and leave the ever-young people together. I left the room.
   And so, very soon afterwards, did Cernunnos. As at 12 noon today he hasn't come back. Yet. I mean, there's always the risk that he'll come back eventually, if only to judge the quick and the dead. But that's by the way of being an acceptable level of risk because by then I'll be ready for him..
   As soon as I'd taken back the videos and done the best I could with the various unwashed cups, half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches and small, ineffable marks on the furniture (including the piece of gum that passeth all understanding, a few dazed-looking flowers and stalks of young corn where he'd trodden without thinking what he was doing, and a comprehensively broken mirror which had belonged to my grandmother) I set about installing a few anti-god devices.
   Not a case, I realised at the outset, where a few window locks and cloves of garlic were going to be any use. This was a situation demanding a whole new approach to home security.
   The system is based on the simple premise that faith moves mountains. Only believe, my argument runs, and the rest is straightforward.
   Accordingly, my house is now a shrine. I've redecorated the spare bedroom as a sort of chapel with a high altar, chantry and built-in gabled reredos (you get them flat-packed from Texas Homecare), and every available square inch of the rest of the place is crammed with statues, frescoes, stained glass windows and other pictorial representations of the god Cernunnos.
   Belief is, of course, a highly personal thing. And if I can choose to believe in the god in the form of a small, hungry white mouse, that's entirely my own affair. As far as I can judge from a pretty exhaustive study of the available source material, gods are honour-bond to respect one's wishes and adopt the incarnation of the consumer's choice.
   Anyway, that's the form my anti-god precaution take. Oh yes, and a very large, bad-tempered cat.

The End

Text reproduced with permission.

1998 Uwe Milde

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