The air was stale in the dingy little shop. It seemed to suffocate the few rays of sunshine that had managed to penetrate the rust and stains of the room’s single window. This diminished light was complimented by a forlorn light-bulb suspended in space by a wire, its golden hue disclosing a thousand motes of dust hovering about it. The walls and floors were wooden, and the whole place seemed to creak under Martin’s step. Despite all this, the shop had an air of rusticity that Martin found strangely appealing. His eyes surveyed the clutter of cheap jewelry, wooden figurines, and inked leather, searching. He cleared his throat.
“Do you sell pocket gods here?”
The shopkeeper was slouched in a chair behind a rickety table, his hands folded over his stomach. He didn’t acknowledge Martin in any way except to grunt, “In the back.”
Martin supposed “in the back” meant behind the fraying curtain that served as the door for an adjacent room. He had assumed those were the man’s living quarters, but apparently not.
“Do you have any of the talking ones by chance?” He had meant it as a joke. This was not the sort of place you’d expect to find talking gods. But the shopkeeper didn’t smile as he shook his head. Martin muttered his thanks and swept past the curtain.
Like the first, this room was lit by a single suspended light bulb. Beneath it were several capacious bins filled with a variety of trinkets. Martin passed by the rock arrowheads, polished stones and little pieces of petrified wood. In the fourth bin, just within the fragile sphere of pale light, Martin found what he was looking for. This bin had been devoted entirely to pocket gods, and it was filled to the brim.
It was fascinating how different two people’s perspectives could be—that one man could ascribe so much honor and another so much disdain to the very same thing. Martin had heard of people who had actually set these little gods up in shrines, bowing down and worshipping them, even offering sacrifices. This was not as common in America, but there was still a certain amount of respect for the power and mystery behind these wooden entities. This shopkeeper, on the other hand, had unceremoniously shoved the pocket gods into an inconspicuous bin in the backroom.
If it wasn’t irreverent, it was at the very least bad business. Had these been placed on shelves at the front of the store, they would have sold quickly. The man hadn’t even bothered to put a sign out front to promote them.
Martin examined the bin. A paper sign taped to its side indicated that the pocket gods sold for two dollars a piece. Martin smiled and shook his head, which is what he did when he was disappointed.
“Do you have anything real?” Martin called to the other room. “Or just these copies?”
“What’s in the bin is what I have,” the man called back.
Martin picked up one of the little wooden objects, his fingers running over its smoothness. The face on this one was slightly off-centered to the left. He held it closer to the gloomy light bulb to better see its expression. It seemed to be smiling, though it was difficult to tell because its eyes were slanted in a way that would have been better fitted to a scowl. Its features were mostly human, except that its forehead was far too pronounced, bulging from the flat surface so that its slanted eyes appeared sunken in. It seemed rather well done.
There were ways to tell the difference from a fake and real pocket god. The most obvious was if it could speak—not an audible voice, but a whisper in one’s head upon contact. But not all the pocket gods could speak. The less potent gods were mute. The other means to determine a god’s authenticity were much more subtle, and Martin didn’t flatter himself to think he could really tell the difference.
Of course he could always set fire to it. A real pocket god would not burn. But he had no matches on him and, if it were a fake, he didn’t think the shopkeeper would appreciate having his merchandise set on fire.
Martin reached into his pocket and pulled out one of his own mute gods, holding it in his right hand alongside the imposter. He had six other pocket gods, all mute, and all of which were back at his home. He did not always carry those with him, but took them up from time to time as they were useful. This one, however, he always kept with him for its general good luck. He was more prone to find a twenty-dollar bill lying on the ground, or hear a song he especially liked on the radio.
He examined the two pocket gods with a frown. He thought he heard somewhere that the texture of the wood should be different, but then he thought the textures of all six of his gods were slightly different from each other, as was the coloring and weight—yet they were all genuine. Martin put his own god back in his pocket, then placed the presumed fake back in the bin and began rummaging through the other wooden faces, not sure at all what he was looking for.
He was elbow deep in the bin when he heard the voice.
It was faint, and it was brief, yet it brought Martin to a state of paralysis. Even his breathing had stopped. It would have been easy to dismiss it as the grinding of a chair against wood, or the shopkeeper clearing his throat, or the wind rustling the fallen leaves outside. It might have been a thousand different sounds, but Martin could not escape the peculiar feeling that the voice had somehow come from inside him, nor could he explain the powerful onset of emotions that suddenly stirred within him.
The voice did not speak again, and a great wave of despair swept through Martin. The breath he had been holding came out in a gasp. Both his arms were ensconced in the wooden sculptures, and he began to frantically feel around for the pocket god that had spoken. He was certain that, if he did not find it, a void would be left in its wake that would leave him forever discontent. His desperation was warranted.
When the voice came again, he knew which pocket god had spoken. He latched onto it and yanked the wooden deity from the bin as if its contents might resist him. He was squeezing the pocket god so tightly he foolishly feared he might break it. He held the wooden face a mere inches from his own incredulous face, and his voice was a tremble.
“Do I have you?”
The pocket god replied with poetry, with a song that was not quite a song. The meaning of the words was lost to Martin, but he was not listening for that. He took in only the beauty of it, the pleasure, and he could feel the void he had feared beginning to fill. He had never owned a speaking god before. He had not been prepared for this.
It was a long time before Martin remembered where he was, and that he was not alone. He cast a quick glance toward the curtain. His thoughts shifted from the excitement of finding a true speaking god to the fear of losing it. This god was not yet his; obviously the shopkeeper was unaware of the great prize he possessed. How he had missed it, Martin didn’t know and didn’t care, so long as he could secure the speaking god for his own. He feared that, if he tried to purchase the god, the shopkeeper might touch it and hear the voice for himself. If he realized its true value, he would never sell it. The prospect was so frightening that Martin spent the next fifteen minutes deciding the best way to ensure his ownership of the deity.
In the end, Martin walked out with the pocket god having paid two dollars. Caught up in the ecstasy of his purchase, he gave little time to self-reflection as was his usual practice. Therefore it remained on the fringes of his mind, unable to scale the walls of his elation—the unsettling thought that, had it been necessary, he would have stolen the god. That, had the shopkeeper caught him, he would have murdered.
It was a four-hour drive from the refreshing mountain air back to the stifling heat of the city. A straight line drawn from Showdown to Harpslord measured no more than one hundred and twenty miles, but the winding road and steep sides made for slow-going.
Martin hadn’t gone a quarter of the way before a flat tire forced him to pull over. The culprit was a sliver of glass embedded in the flesh of his front left tire. Martin dislodged the piece of glass and tossed it over the rail-guard, the sun making it shimmer as it plummeted down the side of the mountain. It irked him that his lucky pocket god hadn’t seen fit to avoid this little bit of misfortune. He had no phone signal and no spare. He would have to flag somebody down and beg a ride, not something he was eager to do.
Inside his car, lying on the passenger seat, was the god that Martin had discovered in the rundown shop in Showdown. He hesitated to touch it, not ready for the emotional onslaught that accompanied its ineffable voice, but when he picked it up it was silent. He was both relieved and disappointed as he slipped the god into his pocket. He locked the doors and waited for the sound of a car on the lonely road.
He did not have to wait long, nor did he have to wave down the battered truck that came to a grinding halt behind his vehicle. The rusted door swung open.
The man who stepped from the truck did not look the sort man to do good deeds in his spare time. He was older, his hair more gray than black, but this did nothing to portray fragility—he was too big for that. His slanted brow, which set his eyes in a perpetual scowl, gave him an edge that would be discomforting to most. He stood with his hands in his pockets staring at Martin’s car, as if it ought to explain itself for cluttering his road.
“Got a flat tire,” Martin said to break the silence. “You wouldn’t get phone service up here, would you?”
The man shook his head. “I’ve no phone myself.” He looked at Martin for the first time. “You from the city?”
“I was heading back there.”
The man seemed to consider for awhile. “My place ain’t too far back. You can call from there well enough.”
“I don’t want to put you out of your way.”
“It’s no trouble.” He turned back to his truck.
“About how far is your place?” Martin called.
“Oh, fifteen minutes maybe.”
Martin nodded to himself. He might have chosen better company, but he didn’t feel much like sitting on the side of the road and hoping for something better to come along.
“Name’s Martin,” he said when he had climbed into the passenger seat. He held out his hand, half expecting it to be ignored.
“Jenk.” The man shook his hand, then pulled out onto the road.
They mostly drove in silence. Martin made a few half-attempts at conversation, but it soon became apparent that Jenk wasn’t interested. It was just as well for Martin. He kept a sweaty palm on the lump in his pocket, his eyes staring out the side window. The green pines grew thick along his side of the road. Occasionally, when the trees became sparse, he caught glimpses of a vast and stunning meadow, golden and rich and stretching into what seemed an eternity. Had there not been so many impediments to his vision, he might have been taken in by its beauty.
The quiet became uncomfortable when Martin noticed Jenk observing him. Or not him, exactly. Jenk was staring at Martin’s lap, at the portion of the wooden face that could just be seen from his pocket. Martin awkwardly covered the god with his hand and shoved it deeper into his pocket. Jenk’s eyes returned to the road.
“I mistrust those things,” Jenk said after a while. His eyes still watched the road.
Martin cleared his throat. “What’s that?”
“That thing you’ve got there in your pocket. Don’t much care for them.”
Martin raised his eyebrows. “You don’t keep pocket gods?” Martin had never met anyone who didn’t own at least several pocket gods.
It was some time before Jenk answered, and when he did, it was really no answer at all. “I don’t like not knowin’ the beginning of a thing,” he said hesitantly.
The wording was rather cryptic, but Martin thought he understood. The origins of the pocket gods had always been a fascinating mystery. Their introduction into the world was still recent history, the first findings less than a century old. They had not been manufactured by men, nor was there anything natural about them. It was inexplicable. They had not existed, then, one day, they simply had.
The only reasonable certainty was that they came from the ground. Or at least no recorded finding had ever contradicted this theory. How the wooden objects had actually gotten in the ground was any man’s guess. They could not have been very old, for they were never more than several feet beneath the earth’s surface, and there seemed to be no geographical limitations as to their whereabouts. The discoveries were occurring on a global scale, in every sort of environment. They had been found in deserts, forests, swamplands, jungles, barren wastelands devoid of all life, in colder regions locked in pockets of ice. Stranger yet, they had been found in cities. Homeowners had found them buried just beneath the green layers of their freshly mown lawns. Children had found them while playing in sandboxes.
Then quite suddenly, nobody found them at all. The earth simply ceased to yield them.
Martin had gone through his phases of uneasiness concerning the pocket gods. Everybody had. But in the end he had concluded that life was better with the pocket gods. Only a fool would deny that.
Martin studied Jenk, wondering about the sort of man who would reject the power of the little wooden gods. “Are you afraid of them, Jenk?” he asked after a moment.
Jenk smiled, an expression not at all becoming of his stern features. “Cautious,” he said. “I know what those things can do to a person.”
“So do I,” Martin retorted. “And mostly it’s good.” He racked his memory in search of a few choice examples. “My cousin’s daughter,” he said with a faint smile. “She had no capacity for song. I’m telling you Jenk, when she sang, things around her died—like flowers and birds and stuff. It was awful. Then one day she came home with a pocket god, and she could sing beautifully. Or my nephew…he was one of the clumsiest kids I’d ever seen. His parents spent a fortune on a pocket god for his sixteenth birthday, and he came out a relatively decent athlete.
“Or Ronald!” Now that he thought about it, there were a thousand examples, just in his own life. “He actually found a pocket god in the earth, before they stopped appearing. The god promised him success in his business. And you know what? He’s doing real well for himself.”
Jenk shook his head. “I’m not denying there are benefits.”
Martin felt his heart beating faster and his breathing quicken. The possibilities of a pocket god were exciting, more exciting than anything Martin had ever known. Without thinking, he pulled out his own pocket god—the one that could talk. Jenk visibly flinched.
It was strange seeing a man so uncomfortable with the pocket gods. After the initial shock, the world had generally accepted the wooden deities. There had been fear and resistance—whole nations had banned the use of pocket gods—but nothing that had lasted. The pocket gods were too useful, bestowing talents and pleasures that were too enticing to be eradicated.
They were also too numerous. In the beginning, people were finding them everywhere. Even after they ceased to spring up from the ground, there was hardly a soul in all the world who didn’t own at least one. A certain amount of familiarity with the wooden figures inevitably developed. More and more, people began to see the gods as tools for their own purposes. The fear dwindled to nothing. Children could be found sitting in circles, exchanging the lesser gods as if they were trading cards. Shops sold them on every corner. It wasn't long before laws were created to monitor the use of the more powerful gods—those gods that could speak. There were heated debates as to whether mind enhancing gods should be permitted in academic settings, or whether gods of manipulation should be allowed in political campaigns. But the gods were ubiquitous, and it was nearly impossible to control. The world was changing. It still was.
“I’ve a few stories of my own, you know.”
Jenk’s voice startled Martin, who was still staring at his pocket god. “Oh yeah?”
“Fellow named Earl, he lived in Showdown. He had himself a pocket god that made food taste better. No lie. He ate and ate. People told him to get rid of the god—it weren’t good for his health.” He paused for a moment, whether to collect himself or for theatrical effect, Martin couldn’t tell. “That man ate himself to death.”
Martin stared intently at nothing. He had heard these sorts of stories before. They always made him uncomfortable.
“I knew another man,” Jenk went on. “A decent man. He found a sex god on his own property. Ruined his marriage. Wife, kids—didn’t matter. He left them.” Again he paused. “Those things change a man.”
“Any tool can be abused.”
Jenk shook his head vigorously. “Not a tool,” he spat. “That thing in your hand is just what you call it. It’s a god.”
An uneasy silence settled on the two. Jenk had returned his attention to the road and Martin was staring out the side window again. The truck crept around a bend, and Jenk cut into the opposite lane to put more distance between them and the steep drop-off on his side of the road. Martin’s window was still filled with pines.
“Does it speak?” Jenk said after a time.
“Your pocket god. Does it speak?”
The pocket god was still sitting in Martin’s lap. He caressed it affectionately.
“And what does it offer you?”
Martin smiled to himself. “It was hard to tell at first, the voice was so beautiful—like wind and water and sky and music.” The memories were vivid and powerful, making his voice crack. “I think…freedom.”
There was a stirring, a quiet whisper that brushed all of Martin’s senses. He went rigid, listening with all his focus; he did not doubt that it came from his god. The whisper became more acute, more fierce, and it was nothing like his previous encounter with the voice. There was a sternness to it, and there was the feeling of urgency. In a way that Martin couldn’t describe, he knew the god meant to convey a warning—to alert him of a grave danger.
“It’s lying you know.”
Martin jumped at the interruption. “W-what?”
“It’s lying.” Jenk’s voice was almost sad. “It won’t give you freedom.”
“How much farther to your place, Jenk?”
Jenk sighed heavily. “Almost there.”
Without a word, Jenk pulled over to the side of the road. The gravel crunched under the wheels of the truck as he parked the car dangerously close to the rail-guard that was the only barrier between the vehicle and the edge of the drop-off.
“What are we doing?”
Jenk reached over Martin to the glove compartment. He wrested it open and pulled out a black drawstring bag. “I want to show you something.” He shoved the door of the truck open and stepped out into the cool evening air. Martin gripped his god and followed him out.
The two stood side by side, staring out over the precipice into the valley beneath them. It was not a place Martin wanted to be standing, given the god’s recent warning. He took several steps away from Jenk and away from the edge.
“Jenk, what’s this about?”
Jenk loosened the opening of his black bag and let something slip into his hand. A pocket god, Martin realized. Its dark cherry color seemed luminous in the last light of the day.
“I thought you didn’t keep pocket gods,” Martin said uncertainly.
Jenk was quiet, looking down on his god. “I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it,” he said. His voice was weak and scratchy. “Even after I stopped using it. I had to know it was still around.”
Jenk looked up at Martin. “It speaks you know.” His eyes went back to the god, and he began to laugh softly to himself. His hands were shaking. “Even now, it pleads with me.”
He tossed the pocket god over the precipice.
Martin watched in stunned silence as the wooden god bounced off the rocks, making its inexorable way down the mountain’s side.
For a long time Martin stood dumbly. Jenk let out a heavy breath, and his shoulders slumped, as if he’d just been relieved of a heavy burden.
“Took me all these years to do that,” he croaked. “Thank you, Martin.”
“I had nothing to do with that.”
Jenk turned to face Martin fully. His eyes changed from the far-away look of deep thought to a sharp and frightening intensity. “You could do it too, Martin.” His gaze fixed on the pocket god in Martin’s hands. “Be free of it. There’s a better way—a lasting way. That thing will only ruin you.”
The first thing to happen was the whispering, if it could be called that. It was no louder than a whisper in Martin’s head, but it carried the ferocity of thunder, it hit him with the force of a tidal wave. Then, there was a swelling of emotion that felt as if it would burst through the confinement of his skin. It was fear and anxiety. It was desperation. It was anger, irrational and raw.
The emotions seemed to carry him forward, as if he were a leaf caught up in a gust of wind. He felt his shoulder slam into Jenk’s chest, felt the solid mass give way under the impact. Simultaneously, he felt his stomach drop and his heart constrict with sudden realization.
Jenk was stumbling backwards, his eyes wide and his arms flailing. The back of his legs caught the rail-guard, and then he was over the precipice, out of Martin’s sight.
Martin reached out as if to pull in Jenk’s body. No human sounds followed. Only the clattering of rocks disturbed from their places.
Pale light brushed the tips of rocks and pines, mingling with the dark shadows that stretched their fingers greedily. The last of the day was fading. Martin stood on the side of the road, his mind and body numb.
Twenty minutes ago a woman had slammed on her brakes, craning her neck to look back over her shoulder in disbelief. Having no phone signal, she had bravely turned her car around, racing back to Showdown for help.
Now there were sirens in the distance, but even this did not pull Martin from his stupor. Only the voice made him blink.
He still cradled the god in his hands. His eyes made the slightest movement downward.
Martin, you must go.
He became aware of the sirens' faint lament. Jenk’s truck sat silently beside him, one of its doors ajar like a broken wing on an insect. He took wobbly steps toward it.
Not the truck. You will be caught. Into the trees.
The pocket god had never spoken so directly to him. Martin’s gaze swung to the threatening line of trees, shrouded in blackness. The sirens grew more insistent as they neared.
I will guide you. Trust in me.
Martin staggered across the road, his mind still in a haze. Clutching the little god to his breast, he slinked into the darkness of the pines as flashing lights appeared around the bend.
It was not the sort of freedom Martin had supposed, but he ran for it with all his might.
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Copyright 2011, Philip Hoshiwara. All rights reserved.
Philip Hoshiwara was born in Tucson, Arizona in 1986. He graduated from Northern Arizona University with a B.A. in English, after which he spent a year in Azerbaijan teaching both children and adult English courses. His work has recently appeared in Inkwell Journal.