This is how my grandfather began his story.
“There was once, long ago, a war between two gods.”
My sister Marin and I listened intently, because our grandfather always told good stories, sometimes about knights and princesses, sometimes about dwarfs and witches. We sat on the carpet in front of my grandfather’s recliner next to the brick fireplace. It held no flames, and never did, because when she was little my grandmother’s house had burned down. Marin and I visited our grandparents every day after school, because our mom and dad worked late.
Marin, who was just starting first grade, raised her hand like she was in class. She was sitting cross-legged, and stretched her back so that her hand went as high in the air as possible. “Grampa, they said in church that there’s only one God.” Marin’s round face held the creases of a question, and her wide brown eyes were even wider than normal.
“I know, Marin,” said Grandfather. His gray-blue eyes twinkled with what I perceived as excitement. “That’s what people believe now. But I’m not talking about now. I’m speaking of way back in history, when the gods were real, and were many.”
“What do you mean, when the gods were real?” I asked. I didn’t bother to raise my hand. I was in fifth grade and completely over raising my hand to ask questions. “Our God is real.”
“He may seem real to you, Seth, but that’s only because people speak of Him and tell you He’s real. In this time, the time of my story, people could go and visit their gods, could pray to them and ask them for favors in person.” Marin raised her hand again, but Grandfather settled back in his leather chair and crossed his callused hands in front of him. “Do you two want to hear my story, or not?”
Marin stuffed both hands under her feet. We both nodded vehemently, though I thought the story sounded somewhat dangerous, not at all like the the stories Grandfather normally told. After I’d heard her and Grandfather arguing once, Mom said that what they taught me in church was real and not to listen if Grandfather said anything weird, but I also trusted Grandfather deeply. So I resigned myself to listen and take the story just as a story, like when we heard ancient Greek myths or Native American legends. Those were just stories that people told themselves before they knew about God, and I thought that this probably was the same.
“As I was saying,” Grandfather began again, “there was once a war between two gods. They were called Yruné of the Five Faces and Asrai of the Five Hands.” Here I could see Marin fighting with herself not to ask another question. Grandfather raised his eyebrows slightly, almost as though daring her, but continued. “I’m going to begin the story with Yruné, because that is the side from which it is always told; Asrai’s tale before the war is mostly forgotten.
“Yruné of the Five Faces was the god of Morro, a large, sweeping country near the sea, full of rivers and lakes. Like many gods, he sat unmoving in his temple, a great construction of shining grey marble and granite. The entrance to his temple was humble: a stair of white stone leading underground, which sat near a bend in the Yrun River. The temple looked much smaller from the outside than from the inside: inside, it was a grand, pillared hall, the great height of which could not have possibly fit under the ground beside the river but for the power of the god that ruled it.” As Grandfather spoke, his smooth, deep voice rolled over us. He drew pictures of the temple in the air with his hands.
“The hall was designed purely to showcase Yruné and his power. It was vast, but empty, and always dim, for there were no windows. Visitors to Yruné of the Five Faces had to walk across the long plain of granite that separated Yruné from the door. There were no decorations in the temple, no carvings upon the floor, simply flat, blank granite, so that Yruné’s worshippers would focus only on him and marvel at his presence. Yruné himself sat like a statue on a raised stage at one end of the temple, his thin hands fixed to the knees of his crossed legs.” Grandfather placed his own hands upon his knees, straightening his back and sitting, momentarily, like a king.
“When a visitor arrived, generally for advice or for direct prayer, he never knew which of Yruné’s faces would greet him. Yruné had five faces, but they were really more like empty masks floating over a headless body. Whichever face was facing forward was dominant, and grew larger than the others. Each of the faces viewed life in a slightly different way.”
I have to admit, Yruné didn’t sound like any god I had ever heard of; certainly, he didn’t sound like the real God, or like the mythical Greek gods. I had always pictured gods as more human. Yruné just sounded creepy. To me, God was an old man with a strong gray beard. Sort of like Grandfather, actually.
Here Grandfather paused for a moment, possibly to decide which face to describe first. It wasn’t a long pause at all, but Marin, freed from the steady, low tones of Grandfather’s voice, became impatient. “So what were the faces like? Why did he need five of them?” she asked, rocking back and forth slightly. Her short brown hair was just long enough to rock with her.
“Relax, Marin. You should learn to let people go places at their own pace,” Grandfather said. He said it calmly, but it was about as close to scolding as he usually came. “As I was saying, each face, or mask, offered a different sort of advice.
“Yruné’s blue face was most likely to be forward, because it favored water and Morro had a great many rivers and lakes. It had smooth features and rounded, empty eyes. The top edge of the face dissolved into hair-like swirls, which moved and dissipated constantly. This face often advised against direct confrontation. Rather, it preferred misdirection and other subtle tactics. It’s sort of like your grandmother, actually.”
“Like grandma?” I asked, a bit surprised by the comparison.
“Yes. Think of how she gets you to do what she wants, or to get you to stop doing what she doesn’t want. Grandma doesn’t punish you for being bad, she just has you go do something else. Marin, what happens when you want to play in a mud puddle?” Grandfather looked at Marin, nodding and smiling encouragingly.
Marin’s nose wrinkled as she thought. “Umm…. Grandma reminds me that I like to play with her doll collection.”
“That’s right. The blue face always advised against fighting. It wanted people to either accept the way life was around them, or to try and change it in a peaceful way.”
“That’s boring,” I interjected. “What a wimp.”
“I disagree, Seth,” Grandfather said, creasing his brow. He adjusted his glasses. “And I think a man named Gandhi would as well. You should look him up later.”
“I know who Gandhi is,” I said, frowning. “We learned about him in school.”
“Good. They’re teaching you something worthwhile. Now, can I continue the story?” Marin and I nodded, so Grandfather started talking again. “Next to Yruné’s blue face in the circle was his black face. It had a hooked nose and two short, curved horns sprouting upward from its forehead. Black fluid constantly ran down that face, like wet paint. This face too was fond of avoiding direct confrontation, but instead of simple misdirection, it enjoyed causing the secret suffering and destruction of others.”
“That face sounds like the devil,” I blurted. “I thought you said Yruné was a god. Gods are supposed to be good.” I started to become more worried about Grandfather’s story, particularly with Marin listening. I didn’t want her getting mixed up and worshiping the devil.
“Not all gods are good, Seth,” Grandfather replied. “And Yruné is neither good nor evil, just as most men are neither good nor evil. In fact, the gods man creates aren’t all good either. Look through your Bible, and you will see acts of what I would call evil committed by your God throughout.”
This disquieted me. I hadn’t read most of the Bible, just a few parts here and there. I relied mostly on what Mom said about it to form my opinions. Grandfather took my silence as a sign to continue.
“Yruné’s next face was deep red, with a sharp, jagged nose and many curved spikes at the top border. It was lit from behind with a golden yellow glow. Like the black face, it promoted the destruction of enemies. It also advised followers to confront problems in their lives head on, and to listen to their emotions. I guess you could say that this face is a bit like your mother.” Grandfather said this with a straight face, but my jaw dropped. Marin was fiddling with the carpet, and I don’t really think she caught what Grandfather said.
“What? What do you mean, like Mom?” I said. “Mom doesn’t want to destroy people.”
“Well, no, in that sense the two aren’t alike. Your mother is not a violent person.” Grandfather sighed. “However, she’s certainly one to let her emotions get the better of her. And if she sees a problem, she heads right for it. She doesn’t try to deflect a confrontation.” Grandfather fiddled with the button on the arm of his chair.
“Well,” I admitted, “Mom does get mad when Marin and I misbehave. She yells sometimes.”
Grandfather stayed silent for a moment, closing his eyes and taking a few deep breaths. “Yes, yes she does.” He chewed a bit on the inside of his cheek, something he does when thinking. “Well, have you noticed yet that the faces next to each other have things in common?”
“No, not really,” I said. I wanted to keep talking about Mom, but I could tell Grandfather had moved on, at least for now.
“Ah. You see, Yruné’s faces that were closest together had the most similar characteristics, while those farthest apart had differing views. Take blue and black. They both favored secrecy. And red and black both tended to have less peaceful solutions to their problems. Red and blue, however, were opposed like fire and water. Yruné’s red face loathed secrecy and reveled in outright conflict, making it blue’s opposite. Does this all make sense?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said, glancing at Marin. She definitely wasn’t paying attention anymore. This story was way different from Granfather’s normal fare. Normally the stories he told were just for fun, but I could tell he had a reason for telling this one now.
“Yruné’s white face, which was next in the circle, also loathed secrecy, but focused on preservation rather than destruction. Its teachings included rescuing others and then oneself before focusing on the enemy. It appeared as a near perfect oval, with simple, rounded eyes and a golden band across its forehead. It opposed both black and blue, for both were self-serving and focused on manipulation.” To me, this head sounded most like the God I knew, though the more I thought about it, the more I realized that each of the faces had something to offer that sounded like God.
“Yruné’s final face was green. It seemed to be made from wood, and was traced with lines like the grain of a tree. From its forehead sprouted two pale wooden antlers, which constantly sprouted small flowers, whose petals fell and dissolved to make room for new flowers. This was the head of life, and it celebrated life in all of its forms. It promoted the strength of the self and the collective, and advised to help others, but at the same time do what was necessary for one’s own survival. It opposed black, the face of death, and red, which often waxed into want of unnecessary destruction and waste.” This face sounded like Mother Nature to me, and though I hadn’t really thought about it before I realized that she was sort of a god, too, and one to whom people still refer.
“There’s something I don’t understand, Grandfather,” I said, shifting my weight slightly. “Did… Ihroonee? Did he give people advice about normal things, too? Like food and babies and stuff? It seems like all you’ve talked about is conflict and relationships.”
“It’s Yruné, Seth. Ih-roo-nay. And yes, he did advise about those things. I told you what I told you because this is a story about a war, but since you’re interested, each of his heads did deal with some facet of life, as well. And which face was dominant was somewhat determined by what his people were praying for at the time. If they were worried about crops and harvest, or childbirth, the green face was most likely to be dominant. If they were worried about fishing or storms, the blue face was strongest. Prayers about death brought either the black face or the white, for both held domain of that. Red was mostly likely in winter, when the people prayed for warmth…”
“I understand,” I said, satisfied and worried he would go on until I became bored. “Can you tell us about the war now?
Grandfather smiled faintly, as though at some sort of private joke. I loved when he smiled because he was so wrinkly that his whole face seemed to be a part of it: his cheeks, forehead, and eyes all crinkled and stretched, just like his mouth.
“Alright. Well, the people of Morro were happy under Yruné’s power. The five kings of Morro each prayed to a different face for the well-being of the country, the people prayed for the help of whichever face they needed most, and their prayers kept Yruné strong. It seemed to work, for in their memory, no great calamity had ever befallen their country. Yes, there were droughts and floods and illness, but part of all Yruné’s five faces preached was that nature would behave as it did, without control of either man or god.”
This statement caught Marin’s interest again, and she raised her hand. “Yes, Marin?” asked Grandfather.
“I thought God controlled nature, Grampa,” Marin asked, tilting her head sideways.
“Well, yes. In Christian myth, nature does as God says. But Yruné did not create the land, nor did any god of those times. They, like us, did not truly know how the world was created, and neither did their people. The difference was that they did not question. They merely went about their lives. But this story is partially about how people discovered the origin of gods, and I think you will come to understand as I tell the rest.”
This new aspect of Grandfather’s story interested me. I knew all about how God created the world, but I had a faint, wiggling wonder in the back of my brain about who created God.
“Now, Morro was almost entirely a peaceful nation. They had soldiers, but not a great army. The only threat they faced were occasional raids from godless nomads, and, every once in a while, a dragon or a sphinx that sought to challenge Yruné’s power. Morro was nearly surrounded by mountains, though the majority of it was flat, and the mountains opened to the western sea. After what seemed to be ages of peace, strife arrived at Morro’s doorstep from over the mountains.”
“Did you say dragons, Grampa?” asked Marin excitedly. She didn’t even bother to raise her hand, she was so glad to have something to latch on to. “Was it a dragon that was mean to Yruné?”
“Actually, no, Marin, it wasn’t. Dragons were rare creatures even then. They were large and majestic, but also very conceited. It was their conceit that ended in their decimation, but that’s an entirely different story.” Marin looked disappointed. She sighed dramatically and slumped back, splaying her limbs out around her. Grandfather had to notice Marin’s lack of interest. By this point, I was sure that his story was mainly for me, and I was determined to pay attention.
“The story I’m telling began when a stranger appeared in the line that sought entrance to Yruné’s temple. Morro was a rather large country, and no one in all the land knew everyone else except Yruné himself. They knew this man to be a stranger because of the way he dressed: in black leather pants and boots and gloves, and a bold red tunic with short sleeves, rather than the flowing, loose-fitting clothes that had been in fashion in Morro for a long time. The tunic had a strange insignia on the front that appeared to be a hand holding an eye. If it weren’t for those clothes, the people of Morro’s capital, Aesther, would have merely thought the man a peasant on his pilgrimage. As it was, however, he drew many stares from the others in the line.
“When it came his turn, the man in the red tunic strode purposefully into Yruné’s hall. He lacked all sense of awe and respect, holding his head high and letting his arms swing at his sides rather than keeping them clasped in front of him. Yruné’s priests, hidden quietly in the shadows, were offended by the hard knock of the man’s boots on the granite. As the man approached, Yruné’s face swept from the white visage to the blue in a blur of motion.
“The man spoke, loudly, as though announcing himself to a crowd. ‘I come bearing the tidings of another god. You may strike me down, but know that your country will then instantly know his ire.’
“Yruné regarded the man silently, then spoke a single word, which seemed little more than a whisper, yet still echoed throughout the chamber. ‘Continue.’
“Yruné’s priests shook like leaves before a storm, for they felt the power stirring within their god. The man in red did not flinch. ‘Asrai of the Five Hands would have you know that he is the greater god. He demands that you relinquish your worshippers and your life to him without struggle, or your country will pay for your arrogance.’”
“Yruné’s empty eyes narrowed as he stared at the man in red. ‘I know of Asrai.’ Without break of sentence or thought, Yruné’s jagged red face was suddenly forward. ‘It is he who has become arrogant, if he believes himself greater than I.’
“‘I do not come to argue,’ said the man in red. ‘I merely seek to inform you of my Lord’s wishes, and to carry your reply back to him.’
“Yruné’s faces rotated quickly between white, black, and green, before returning to red. His priests were astonished, for they had never seen the faces change so quickly.
“‘You may tell him that his demands are folly. I will not submit, and neither will my nation.’ Yruné’s face flashed quickly to blue, and several of his priests screamed. For the first time in any of their memories, Yruné’s body moved. His right hand, with its long, spidery fingers, reached out and enclosed the man in red like a cage. He finally flinched, and his mouth opened in terror, as the hand closed around him as though seeking to crush him. Then came a flash of light, and the man in red vanished without a trace. Yruné’s hand moved slowly back to his knee, and his face changed to white.”
Marin, her attention apparently drawn back to the story by the action, squealed at this, and looked very worried. “Did he kill that man, Grampa?” I wondered, too, what had just happened. I had thought he blue face to be one of nonviolence, and its apparent act of murder surprised me.
“No, he sent him back to Asrai as a display of power. To show his strength,” Grandfather explained.
“Like when guys show off on the playground how good they are at basketball,” I said, and I thought of but didn’t mention how Mom had been paying for Grandfather’s medical bills.
“Yes, something like that. After Yruné sent the man in red away, he dismissed his petitioners and called for Morro’s five kings. He told them that they must prepare for war, and likely a very violent war. For Asrai was a lot like Yruné in some ways, but very different in others. Asrai also consisted of five aspects. Unlike Yruné, however, whose aspects were balanced in strength, Asrai’s aspects were all dominated mainly by one of the others. I guess could say it’s sort of like your mom and your dad. Your Dad is like Yruné. He balances all of his feelings with each other and doesn’t let any one feeling take control. Your mother, however, tends to let her anger get the better of her.”
For some reason, Grandfather kept drawing the story back to relate to Mom in some way, and he always said something negative about her. I knew that Mom and Grandfather hadn’t really been getting along recently, though I didn’t know exactly why. I had a suspicion that it had something to do with her taking us to church, but I wasn’t sure.
“Yruné described Asrai as having a human torso and a long, serpentine tail. From the top of his torso, in place of a head, sprouted five arms topped by five hands that represented his different aspects, like Yruné’s faces.
“However, Asrai’s hands were fixed in order of dominance, unlike Yruné, whose faces were balanced in strength by their ability to rotate. This made Yruné able to adapt to most situations, and gave him varying perspectives from which to act. Asrai tended to behave the same way no matter what situation presented itself.
“Asrai was an angry god, who was not above punishing his followers for disobeying him and who used war as a way to gain worship. Asrai, overall, is very similar to your God in certain parts of the Bible.”
Grandfather stared at me for a moment to see how I would react. I fidgeted and looked at Marin, who had, at some point, fallen asleep, leaving me alone to Grandfather’s story. I didn’t say anything. I just thought about the number of people God killed in the Bible, from the sons of Egypt to basically the entire world with the flood.
“Asrai’s dominant hand, which sprouted directly from where a human’s neck would be, was the hand that corresponded to Yruné’s red face: clawed and coated in armor of red bone, it had a thumb on either side and a staring red eye in the middle of its palm. Its lust for violence and destruction tainted all of the hands, particularly those to its left and right, which corresponded roughly to Yruné’s white and black faces.
“The white hand of Asrai, covered in gleaming steel and with a glowing golden eye, instead of representing preservation of others and the self, instead promoted self-righteousness. The black hand of Asrai possessed a thousand tiny black spikes and a violet eye. It focused more on corruption and destruction. Asrai’s blue and green hands, sprouting from his sides below his black and white hands, were overpowered by his other hands and barely influenced his behavior. His green hand sprouted thin vines, which twined around its thick fingers and shining green eye. From it, Asrai’s other hands drew only its tendency toward great power. Asrai’s blue hand had long, delicate fingers which trailed mist, and a blue eye in its center. It contributed only its tendency for deception to Asrai’s dogma.
“To Yruné, this meant that Asrai’s people were likely to be violent and focused on their own power and the destruction of other people through whatever means necessary. He informed his kings of this, and his white face told them to gather the current army at the borders, in an attempt to stop further servants of Asrai from entering the country.
“His black face, knowing that deception was always possible, advised the priests that they must travel the countryside seeking people who did not worship Yruné, and testing those who claimed that they did, for if one agent of Asrai had already entered Morro — indeed, had made it all the way to Aesther — then any number could already be in the country. Yruné’s red face instructed the kings to begin building up the army as quickly as possible, because Asrai was very likely to start a war.”
I perked up a bit at this. The things Grandfather was talking about made me think, but I was a bit tired of that. I wanted some action. “A war? Cool!”
Grandfather frowned at me. “A war is nothing to be excited about, young man. The war isn’t truly the important part of this story, but what happened because of it. You do need to know some of the war to know why that happened, though, so here we are.
“Asrai at first tried a few underhanded tactics. He used hidden agents to poison Aesther’s water supply. When citizens began falling and Yruné became aware of the poison, he sent a priest carrying a glimmering white shard to the water, and thus erased the poison.
“Unfortunately for Asrai, his attempt at more subtle attacks backfired and merely bought Morro’s armies more time to grow. All men capable of wielding a weapon were enlisted and trained as quickly as possible. Many were sent to guard strategic points at Morro’s borders, and others stayed in the larger cities. It wasn’t until nearly a year after his first messenger that Asrai’s true assault began.
“The attack on Morro became a siege on a very large scale, for the mountains surrounding the country provided great protection. The only true pass was greatly defended, with several rows of large, thick walls, and great garrisons of soldiers. The war lasted for several years, and many people, soldiers and innocents, died on either side. This caused something neither of the gods expected: their people began to lose faith in them.
“Asrai’s people grew tired of being forced constantly into his wars, and into the Morro war in particular, for it was long and drawn out. They began to realize what little Asrai had ever truly done for them. Criers appeared in towns throughout Estrant, Asrai’s country, shouting to the people that all Asrai had ever done for them was cause them death and ruin.
“The people of Morro began to fear Yruné, and to lose respect for him and his strength. What had he ever done to protect them, but force them into a war that really only saved his own godhood? He had never saved them from a natural disaster, merely told them to have strength while it passed. Indeed, he had never done anything but give advice.
“As both peoples began to wonder about their faith in their gods, they lost animosity toward each other. The resistance to both gods grew in their respective countries. In Morro, the people rose up and slew their kings and the priests of Yruné. The people began to ignore Yruné and Asrai’s orders, and sent envoys of peace between their two countries.
“The most interesting thing about this is, as the people stopped listening to their gods, the gods were powerless to stop them. They could only call out, asking, demanding, and finally begging for worship, before they finally faded entirely from their people’s thoughts and then from existence. In this way, the people of Morro and Estrant discovered that gods created nothing, and that people created gods.”
I stayed silent, attempting to digest the confusing tale Grandfather had just spun. Marin was still sleeping, and I doubted she would remember much of what the story had been about. Unlike most of Grandfather’s stories, this story made me think. Was it real? Did it really happen? Or did people just make it up, like they made up the gods within it?
When Mom came by after work to pick up Marin and I, she asked me what was wrong. I didn’t say, but the next Sunday, when the family went to church, I told mom I was sick and wanted to stay home. I haven’t gone to church since.