~3000 words, approx 20 min reading time
ONE: the father, the son.
I grow up in the shadows of three-eyed gods. The statues stare me down, pale marble hands reaching out to cup the streets of the city. Some urchins nestle in the statue’s palms at night, though that is supposed to be an honor reserved for the blessed, not street rats. The emperor loathes the desecration, but there are too many of us for him to stop.
I could tell him stories about desecration. Once, a boy pissed on the statue of Laetitia—the god of joy— as a dare. We found him hanging from her thumb the next morning, neck snapped. The boy picked Laetitia because he thought joy would not hurt him. I know too well how quickly joy goes to rot.
My childhood passes under the array of statues, running errands for my father, hauling metal back and forth. I’m an urchin, but at least I know my father— he is a blacksmith, an immigrant to the city, who builds beautiful automatons. He came here smuggled in the back of a boat, muttering prayers to a god whose territory he’d abandoned.
I’ve never seen his— my— our homeland. I suppose we share it. At seven, it doesn’t cross my mind very much. I certainly don’t miss it. My home is the city and its gems and its statues. (It’s hard not to love something when it gleams so brightly in the sun.) The saints and statues are open to all, even grime-smeared urchins like me.
Whenever I express fascination with these stranger’s gods, my father frowns. He warns me that this pantheon offers nothing to me, that they will never accept a foreigner into the clergy. That we are from the old country, and our god (singular) is not one of grand statues and gold-dripping statues. Our god is in small acts, our sanctity kept sacred by the mundane. Laughter between friends. A mother’s embrace. Paint on canvas. In between these acts, in dancing rays of sunlight, is where our god resides.
I do not listen to him. I go to speeches in the square where monks have their eyes smeared with liquid gold, and festivals of diamonds and emeralds that celebrate the saints.
I decide to become a priest.
TWO: marked blood.
I am twelve and the seminary school hates me. The building is pale, cold brick; students of a similar colorMy peers mock my accent, which I didn’t know I had— I don’t know if they’re laughing at the slum-slur of my words or the rolling lilt of old country hidden in the back of my mouth. I ignore their jibes and focus on my studies.
In class, learning about saints— the servants of the gods, devoted and the dead. It is a painful process to become one and it always ends unhappily, but everyone in my class wants to try regardless. Saints hurt. Saints die, say my teachers. This is the way it goes. Only after their death are saints given titles and praise, and golden statues of their likeness placed around the seminary.
At school, all the statues are gold. Wealth means good fortune, and good fortune means the gods favor you. Here in this holy place, money is a virtue. Icons of silver and bronze dance in the firelight. I wonder what it means for me to have been born an urchin in the slums. Was I a sinner, then? Or just unlucky? What about my father? He only ever seemed to want to survive, and for me to be happy. The city gave me my ambition, not him.
When my father visits— which is rare— he brings strange rituals and expectations. Braided candles and stern lectures. A small oil-jointed automaton, and questions. Are my grades good? Yes. Are they the best in the class? No. He takes me aside, and says, son, if you are going to become one of them, then you must do it completely. When they look at you, they must see only the best, so they never take a second glance and see the old country underneath. And get rid of your accent.
I find that last statement ironic, given the rough brogue in his own voice. At this point, my father is nearly a stranger to me, and he looks out of place at the seminary school. Bearded, eyes downcast, head covered— his broad shoulders and rough sallow hands contrast against the slim-robed priests. I squirm away from his grip, uncomfortable with his intensity and oddity, but he pulls me into an embrace before I can escape.
When he lets me go, he slips a piece of sweet bread into my pocket. He must have carried it with him all this way, another small, strange gift to me. When he turns away, I take a bite. It tastes like home— of an old god with no name and small miracles. I want to cry. I won’t.
I try not to miss my father when he leaves. I work on my accent, and I make sure to pray to my new gods every night.
THREE: divine devotion.
I am sixteen and my father dies. I don’t know if it was overwork or disease that got him in the end, or if they are one and the same, inextricably linked through the bitter string of poverty.
I go back to my hometown for the funeral. I have not returned here for four years, and it is dirtier and more cluttered than my memories made it. The small city block, where all the old country immigrants live, is crowded. The signs are written in a mix of city language and a foreign script I cannot read. (My father tried to teach me, once. I walk faster so I do not have to think about how I’ll never have the opportunity to learn from him again.)
The statues of three-eyed gods are still there, and in my mind, they beam down beneficently at me as I stride down the street in my silver seminary robes. I have escaped this place. I have become something better, something holy.
My pride fades when the mortician tells me I’m too late to see my father’s corpse. He requested an old world burial, one with a mourning period of seven days, but the morgue had no space or inclination, so they threw his body into the sea. A heretic’s grave. I think of how often my father stared longingly across the ocean, and I hope his corpse finds its way to the old country somehow. Guilt tastes like salt on my lips.
My father worked in the city for three decades, but he was never granted citizenship— that’s an honor only for those who convert. He got paid less than other workers, and couldn’t afford the doctors who might have saved him when his heart gave out. At the seminary, I learned that the gods love everyone but what of those who don’t pray to them? How can they be benevolent gods, if they only grant miracles to those who sacrifice to them? How could they and the city be good and still let my father’s corpse sag with seawater? The questions hurt my head. I do not want to cry, so I do what I did all those lonely nights at seminary school and pray.
To my surprise, the first words out of my mouth are the prayers my father taught me: like the signs above the shop, a mix of old and new language. I am startled at how easily the psalms rise to my lips. I shed my robes like a carapace and kneel across the floorboards of my childhood home. I search for beauty in small things: the gleam of sun off my father’s tools. The smell of fresh bread from the bakery next door. This is a god who is always here. This is a god who gives small miracles to all, every day.
Maybe it is just as real as the three-eyed pantheon, but it does not matter. I don’t need a small miracle. I need a way to bring my father back.
I am still sixteen, and I do not go back to the seminary. I tell myself I will, soon, once the mourning period is up, but then it passes and I am still in my father’s cramped apartment. I gift his automatons to his few friends and try— but fail— to throw out what’s half-finished. I pray to a mix of gods. At night, I dream of drowning, of reaching for a shoreline that crumbles beneath my fingertips. During the day, I hang my silver robes up in the closet and put on welding gloves. My father’s clothes and tools fit me now. Either I have grown into him, or what’s left of him has shrunk into me.
He used to tell me stories of our people. I remember them now in the soft burr of his voice: how we prayed, how we ate, how we suffered, and when all three acts were the same. We were a small, isolated folk, tossed between different regimes like a ship between craggy waves. Our god stayed with us, but did not save us. In order to cope with this, we built creatures of clay that protected our villages, and loved them as we loved our god and loved our own names.
My father always ended his stories with the words: That’s why I became a blacksmith, so I could build as our ancestors did. You, too, could create something loved.
I wish I had listened to his teachings, instead of being blinded by glittering gods. His tools are heavy and unfamiliar, awkward to use. Each blow of the hammer crashes against the anvil. I do not know what I am building at first, until it begins to take shape beneath my hands: a body forged in steel and silver, an automaton bigger than anything my father ever made. It is hollow on the inside, like bird bones, oddly delicate for all its bulk. It is stronger than clay— a mixture of city gleaming and old country tradition. It is a way for my father to return to me. (I think. I hope. I pray.)
My homeland and the city share one thing in common: resurrection is possible, but it’s heresy, not a holy miracle. I close the blinds so the neighbors cannot see what I am creating. Once, I would have been horrified to defy the gods, but grief has changed me. I will build what I need and take what I must. I need my father back, and that transcends all faith.
The priests of the seminary come knocking. I say I will be back soon, but do not give a date. My final exams are coming up, they remind me. I could be ordained within a few days if I focus, just in time for my seventeenth birthday. I don’t listen. There is another test I have to pass.
Finally, the construct is complete. It’s clumsy in places, with globs of metal holding the joints closed, a mixture of iron and bronze, but it is mine, and it suits my purposes well enough. It lies inanimate on the table, a vase waiting to be filled. It will hold a little bit of magic. A little bit of electricity. A little bit of prayer.
The ritual will be done tomorrow, and I will bring my father back.
That night— for the first time since my father died— I do not dream of the sea.
I am newly seventeen, and the guards come for me under the cover of night. A storm crashes against the window, muffling their footsteps. They pull me from my bed and bind my legs with rough-hewn rope so I cannot run, then drag me to the city center beneath the triple eyes of the gods. It’s so quick I don’t even have a chance to scream.
Someone must have told the priests. Someone must have suspected what I was doing. One of my father’s friends, superstitious and suspicious? One of the priests of the seminary? It doesn’t matter— I am alone either way.
Rain pelts the square. A crowd gathers around me. Their torches flare like pricks of stars against the dark. I clutch in my fist a small shard of metal with a switch and a wire— the key to my creation, which I kept beneath my pillow. I hide it between my fingers as the shouting starts.
The priests want to burn me for my heresy. I do not flinch as they list my crimes. Saints hurt. Saints die. This is the way it goes.
Someone douses me with oil— a baptism, of sorts. My breath rattles in my lungs. I see some friends from the seminary standing in the crowd, stone-faced like statues as thunder rolls in. I can’t— won’t— die like this, like my father, alone and betrayed by the city. The fire leers closer.
I’m sorry, father, I think. For everything. Once again, I failed. Once again, I am abandoning him. I have a way out, and I intend to use it.
The priest lights a match. I flip the switch.
There is a crack. In the distance, the door to my apartment shatters. Heavy metal footsteps shake the pavement. My automaton emerges, limping, half-formed. It is a crude thing, bulbous, staggering, but it stands eight feet tall and smiles with needle teeth at the white-faced crowd. My laughter is the only noise audible against the storm.
Then someone screams.
Come to me, I beg my creation through a mouth full of rainwater. Let us both be complete.
It lumbers forward. One of the guards swings at it, but his sword hits the automaton’s metal chest and sticks there. He stumbles back. The automaton ignores him. The crowd parts like water. Lightning splinters against the nearest building, close enough for me to smell the ozone. The storm is drawing closer. I raise my fist with the key up towards the sky. It quivers in my grasp, seeking the storm.
With my other hand, I caress the silver skin of my creation. It leans into my touch. The broad smoothness of its chest reminds me of my father. Thunder rolls across the sky. I know the next strike of the storm will hit us. I know, too, that god is with me.
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up— the air ripples— the heavens part. Lightning comes crashing down, falling-angel bright. I think, through my tears, that it is beautiful.
I am seventeen and I am dead. No— I am dying. I am surrounded by white light and I am burning. My skin is peeling off. My ears are ringing. The smell of melted flesh and metal singes the back of my throat. My automaton embraces me, shielding me, melding with me. I hear a scream in the distance. I think it might be coming from my mouth.
Saints hurt. Saints die. This is the way it goes.
I pass out.
For a brief moment, I feel my heart stop.
I come back to consciousness.
I breathe in with lungs of steel. The moon gleams like pale fire off my chest of chrome, and the rain soothes my burns. The crowd is clustered behind the three-eyed statues of the gods. I smile, feel my metal mouth crack. I am an amalgamation of sinew and steel. I am half metal, half man. Half old country, half new. In the drop-dead quiet, I realize I don’t have a pulse.
I stretch my newly bulky body. Metal pops and creaks. Thunder crackles overhead. Everything else is silent. I can hear my breath— in, out, like leather bellows against my ribs. I am a saint. I am immortal. I am a beast of resurrection.
I wish my father were here to see this.
I turn to leave. No one stops me. The crowd is pale and huddled in the darkness. I offer them an orphan’s salute, then leave the square. My body still hurts, but it is mine, and the pain just means that I survived.
I make my way down to my father’s final resting place. The ocean presses cold fingers to the shore and then draws back, as if afraid. The storm is fading, but slivers of rain still shatter the cool surface of the water.
My metal chest thrums. The statue-gods of the city face away from me, three eyes turned inward to the buildings I am leaving behind. The seminary glows pale in the distance.
I find a boat left unattended, big enough to hold my bulk. Rain splatters against my skin, and I tilt my head up to taste it: a tinge of saltwater. The ocean, calling me home. It’s like my dreams all over again, but this time I will not drown.
I can’t see the edge of the old country from here, but I can imagine it, just like the stories my father told me. I don’t know if my people will welcome me back, strange and changed as I am, but I know I have to try.
I row. The oars cut like blades through the flat water. The moonlight melts across the surface of the ocean, puddling white atop deep blue. It is beautiful. I breathe in, smell the salt. I find my god there.
Avi Burton (he/they) is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where he’s studying theater and classic literature. He enjoys writing about religion, revenants, and–on occasion– laser swords. His short fiction has also been published in Escape Pod and PodCastle magazine. You can find him on Twitter under @avi_why
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash
Author of “Six Steps To Becoming A Saint”
What inspired you to write this story?
I have always had a complicated relationship with Judaism, and I wanted to write something exploring that without being too personal (hence the fantasy elements and fudged details). I drew on the idea of Catholic martyrs, Jewish cultural traditions, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and then I mixed them all together to make something excitingly blasphemous.
What do you hope readers take from this story?
Devotion is never easy. Hiding your heritage doesn’t mean it isn’t part of you– sometimes, that hiding is part of your heritage. Also, revenants are super cool. Zombies > ghosts all the way.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
8 submissions! (6 rejections, 1 acceptance, 1 withdrawn). It was originally written for the LeVar Burton Reads short story contest and did not even make it past the first round. I initially hesitated to submit to Apparition because I wasn’t sure how well this story fit the wanderlust theme, but I decided to go for it anyway, which proves you should always shoot your shot.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I have got to hype up my friend’s short stories because they’re amaaaazing: Max Franciscovich’s Night Shift in Strange Horizons (http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/night-shift/) & Chris Campbell’s Fatal Conditions in Fiyah #18. Seriously just drop what you’re doing and go read them right now.