Every day she woke up tired, grey and heavy as the morning. She made the same breakfast of eggs and sausage, and when she had eaten she dresses herself in faded clothes and pulls a grey shawl over her shoulders to take her morning walk along the cliffs, and feel it crumbling away under her feet. Sometimes she wished to walk to the villages far and beyond the horizon, but she couldn't leave the man who had brought her here.
The woman had been here for nearly two hundred years, but she had been without him longer than she could remember.
He had been a dreamer.
She loved his wildness, his big white-toothed grin. She loved how he tipped his head to the side like a puppy when she talked, and how his blonde hair was so different from the rest of their tribe's. She loved his sense of adventure and the laughter he just couldn't control, and the way the little village kids clustered him and clutched his hands and begged for stories. And she loved that, when he was in the middle of those stories, he would look up and make eye contact with her and grin, as if to say, Isn't this the darnedest thing? And, silly though it may be, she loved his love for her.
They grew up in the same plot of land that she would one day spend most of her eternal life at, houses scattered over grounds that would one day have cliffs. Pine trees blocked out the sun; campfire smoke blocked out the moon; and the roofs over their heads woven from corn stalks and saplings let in only the pinpricks of stars.
That was why she felt so special when he would haul her late at night to muddy clearings and hold her chin in his hands to point out which way the stars turned to talk to each other.
Stars don't talk, she would say.
Or we don't listen, he suggested.
He was entirely a fool, stupid and carried away by his own ideas, and she was gone for him long before he could have ever guessed.
And now, as she sits there in her own grey garden, she wonders if that was such a good idea.
It's a funny thing, being the last. She's been the last one for a very long time, not sure she's ever really been first. First daughter? First sister? First kiss, first date, first love, first loss, first betrayal? No. Her footprints in life had never been wholly her own, her steps taken into indents left by others before her. Is it such a surprise, then, that she is also the last to stay behind?
She squats down to feed the chickens rice and chickpeas and they come clucking obediently to her hand. The animals around here have always been tame. She thinks it's the lingering power of Okigujay, their fox-god, that calms them and puts wisdom into their beady eyes.
The sea breathes his grey breath onto her back and she winces at the salt-spray hitting the front door of her cabin-- a door, she thinks, that grows closer to the cliffs every day, surrounded by skies that darken with his every displeasure. Still, she likes being this close to him, likes the idea that every rumble of the sea is a conversation between the two of them.
"I'm good," she might say. "And you?" But her words would hang empty in the air, swallowed up by nothing, and though she can picture the warmth of another human listening, her only reply is the gasping of the water.
She stands, rubbing the mud off her hands, and makes her way to the lookout point on the cliffs. It's the highest point of what little island they-- she-- has left, but she can't step out far without the earth loosening under her sandals.
Everything is breaking here. She hates watching the history of her tribe fall down like hourglass sand into waters with creatures who would have no idea who Okigujay was, much less any idea of how to properly worship him. She supposed she could try shouting his story to the next mermaid she saw at the base of the cliffs.
But fish-people probably didn't worship.
He had always liked fish even before. He thought their scales were cool. Sometimes he would pull her by her hand to a river and she'd sit with him, sighing and pretending to be annoyed at his antics, while he splashed around trying to grab one like an idiot.
Sometimes he'd roped her in and those were her favourite memories, because she'd protest and he'd promise to teach her and he'd do that thing where he would say, "Be the fish! Be the fish!" over and over while she got her hair wet. She'd yell, he'd laugh, and once she actually had gotten a fish, but she screamed and it smacked her in the face with its tail before jumping back into the river. She was sure it'd been thinking the same thing she was: idiots.
And oh, they were.
She gets to the cliff and kneels down to pray, touching her face in a pattern before putting her hands onto her knees and rocking back and forth, murmuring to herself. She does this every day-- every week she sacrifices a goat from the herd she keeps, even though the person she’d known hated when animals were hurt.
But neither of them were quite the same as they had been.
She let her prayers fall down, and he frothed against the rocks like he tasted them.
Honnubulu was the god of owls and wisdom and one day he'd foretold there would come a great river that would taste like sadness, and that would swallow up the land they inhabited. With this river there would come new gods with their own people, and war would happen if they did not flee.
Go, he said. I will follow in your minds and hearts.
So her tribe packed up and went.
But he did not.
He'd been telling her of dreams he'd been having for weeks now, dreams that woke him with a start in the middle of the night and trailed their damp fingers down into his conscience, whispering words only he could hear.
You can be a god.
They believed in him, these spirits, these things, these murmurs dissolving into the air. They saw his blonde hair and his blue eyes and they wanted him for their god.
He looked at her and she saw the ache in his eyes. He wanted this godhead, this adventure, the greatest adventure the world could offer him. He would take it if she said yes.
"I do nothing by halves," he told the spirits, because they were two halves that were whole and nothing could rip them apart.
She said yes.
The spirits gave him their power and he swelled the rivers of their home with it, the rivers they used to fish in. He raised his hands, and the springs of their childhood grew and overflowed like the water of a pitcher, and crossed over their old, abandoned houses and over her mother's grave. He sent the water rushing, gushing, running, over the pine trees and out and out and beyond, flooding the woods their gods used to roam in. He smiled at her awe and cut the land into cliffs he could deposit her on safely, smashing rocks into grains that coated the bottom of their new world.
And the land turned into seas, the blue of his eyes.
People came as Honnubulu said they would. They marvelled at this river unlike any other, and they worshipped her sandy-haired love with great piety. They knelt at cliffs and touched their faces to him and he smiled from his waters.
She stayed on land to settle them, taught them how to weave, taught them how to hunt fish in the same style as her village had for hundreds of years. They worshipped her too, surprisingly, and from their love she was made immortal: a goddess of nature and human kindness, who had nurtured them with care. They called her Gaia: earth.
Every day, she stood up on the cliffs until he came to her with a grin and took her hand for them to wander the realms they had made, marvelling at the beauty of their new world and laughing as they remembered their days as children, pudgy and unfit for such power.
I love you, he would say, brushing her black hair from her face. I'm so, so in love with you. He always sounded a little stunned, like he could hardly believe it himself. She would tease him for it and he would laugh and tickle her, pulling the words from her with no effort at all, and then they'd lie spent on grass their people worshipped because she walked it, next to waters they praised because he'd created them, and smile at each other like there was nothing else in the world.
Four hundred years is a very long time to be happy, but all things have to crack eventually, have to break to leave a goddess wandering the isles her husband created, searching for a purpose.
They cannot be killed, but they die. People have a tendency to lose interest. Change has a tendency to grow bored and to bounce to the next big thing, the next development of the world. New gods are born-- a god of lightning, leaping and cracking over the earth, a goddess of love and fertility born naked from the sea, trickster lords of pine cones and slitted yellow eyes. Pyres burned at the feet of these other gods, and the pair of them were fading into myth.
She would have been okay. Immortality had never been of importance to her. Goddess or mortal, lingering thought or shouted belief, her place was by his side, and to be a myth was not to die entirely… just to lose what made you special.
But his anger was roused. Godhead had been a gift to him. It was his right from the spirits that had believed in him and blessed his power into existence. He would not-- could not-- accept becoming a background noise. She watched his smile fade, and his gentle eyes darken. He was the sea, great and blue and stronger than any of these new gods. He was powerful, old and cold as time itself.
His waves came and rocked the shores and crept over careful years of sowing fields and weaving baskets. The waters grew and flooded the villages of the people who had once worshipped him-- people who cried for their feeble new gods to save them, and who spun into his waters when no gods answered.
On the land they wept, and their tears turned the sea into salt. The people were flushed to the bottom of the ocean for the fish to feed on, and their villages buried. The water receded, plants grew back, and later new people came. She thought things would return to normal.
But the wrath of her husband had been stirred. His currents, once slow-moving and sweet as any river, pounded over the shores. They said his waves hid the punishments bestowed upon those who had refused to worship him, and they said that the tongues of blue-grey licking the shores were the hands of those people trying to escape. She closed her eyes to these stories, but she wondered.
Her worshippers dedicated pottery and good harvests and healthy babies to her name, but her husband was given blood and murder and young girls with their necks cut before a pyre. His eyes hardened into grey as the sacrifices grew, and day by day the ocean rose higher up the cliffs. In fear, there were more sacrifices.
He was retreating, she saw. His visits came less often; hers too, for fear of seeing what he had become. She gave him space and patience, told him to remember the brighter days, but despite her words she was left looking nervously into the sea and thinking it seemed higher than it had the day before.
Then there came his children.
Creatures not born to her, who crawled out of the surf with green skin and yellow eyes, or with a silvery fish tail and webbed fingers, or many others. He created new things down there to expand his realm, and her sorrow was so great that she fell to the earth, as she had not in many years, and wept with such anger that the forests trembled because of it, and a hurricane swooped down from the clouds. He felt it across the water and knew.
He came back to the land once-- only once-- and she hadn’t seen him since. She’d waited on the beach with her arms crossed, watching him step out of the water. For a moment she hadn’t recognised him. His blonde hair had darkened and grown long, his high cheekbones looked as though they’d been carved from rock, and his grey eyes were empty. He wore armour as though coming to fight a war. His skin was translucent from time in the deep.
He was not someone she knew any longer.
He stopped and stared at her. The faintest traces of emotions flickered across his pale face, ones she couldn’t discern, and several times he opened his mouth to speak, hesitated, and closed it again. He looked to the ground.
She was always better with words, and she spoke them to the air: “I do not believe we know each other any longer.”
“I do not believe I know myself at the moment,” he whispered. “I do not…” He looked down at the armour he was wearing. “I am not sure what I am.”
She put her hand against his forehead, and he leaned into it, closing those scarred grey eyes. She could see the pain in his body, could see what years and years of blood spilled to his name had done for his heart, what forever in the coldest part of the earth was doing to banish his warmth. She was a forgiving soul…
“I will love you again when you do.”
But not that forgiving.
Memories are a fickle thing. Evolution is strange: a fish with eyes is trapped in caverns for until its great-great-great-great grandchildren do not have eyes. At some point we begin to say why, and just like that we lose that part of ourselves.
New humans will believe in different gods and let the old ones go. Evolution. Change, of the saddest and most permanent kind. Humans die but gods fade, and to fade is worse than death, because fading signifies that there was never any existence to begin with.
She’d spent her life traveling the world and receiving worship from those she met, but soon she was not seen as a goddess but just a woman, as a has-been. And as she lost their prayers she knew deep in her bones that she was going to fade soon into something that had never been at all.
She went back to the sea and her old home. If death was coming for her, she wanted to be where she was happiest.
When she had arrived, she’d felt it the second his salt-spray caught her in the back of the throat: he was going to die, too. Old as time though they were, greater than any other god, there was no one left to recognise that.
Except for her.
The rituals of his worshippers were burned into her mind and right there on the sand she knelt and prayed to her husband. At sunset she slaughtered a lamb to his name. She thought, while I wait for death I will keep him alive, so she stayed on those cliffs and she worshipped whatever he had become.
He hissed against the cliffs like he tasted her tears.
Humans tell this story now because humans love a story and a tragedy and they especially enjoy a combination of the two.
It goes like this:
Once the Earth loved the Sea, so she sacrificed to him and prayed to him for his affections, and worshipped his name when others did not any longer. The Sea was a cold creature, but he felt himself warming to the Earth, and so he told his mermaids and selkies and sea-nymphs in awe: “There on the sand is the one who you owe your lives. She is called Gaia; she is strong as a tsunami and fast as an eel and her hair contains every colour of the sea. She built the rocks that we swim over. »
He told them stories, they told their children stories, and soon they sacrificed to Gaia with coral-shells like flowers and prayers praising her sweet, earthen name. And he sat back in the shadows of his throne and wished to meet this goddess.
Up on Earth, Gaia longed to join her Sea, but his waves buffeting the cliffs were too strong for her to pass, and her sunshine could not go so deep. And down below, he was rooted to the sea’s trenches now, could not see light again without it blinding him and burning his pale skin, could not exist without salt in his lungs.
They stay in their worlds, but she prays every morning. He tells his stories every day before dining with his sea-creatures, and they both remember a life a million lives ago when two children played by a river bed and one fell in, and they laughed until they cried.