Illustration by S.C. Watson
My eyes just about popped out of my head when the babes came into the bar and I wasn’t the only one. Jaws were scraping floor all around the room as we stared at the pair. Even Father Mike was picking up some dirt on his chin. This was weird, even for Bulfinche’s Pub and we know weird. Look up the word in the dictionary and you’ll see a group photo. I’m the one in the back row sticking his tongue out by the name of Murphy.
You don’t see babes like these in a bar very often. For starters, the shorter one was bald and I’d seen more fuzz on a peach than on the taller babe. Fortunately, we didn’t adhere to the traditional no shirt, no service motto, otherwise one of them wouldn’t have been allowed in. The shorter one wasn’t wearing a shirt or even pants for that matter. Naked as a babe, except for the diapers and baby shoes.
The taller one was sporting a jumper and was toddling, barely able to push the smaller one’s stroller. It looked like he was using his hand grips to stay upright. I’d put his age at less than two years old. The little one was barely a year and couldn’t walk well. The toddler had to help him climb out of the buggy and he wasn’t exactly gentle. The toddler grabbed the infant by the diaper and yanked, dropping him on the floor. Unhurt, the infant crawled over to the bar.
“That’s a switch,” I said, breaking the silence.
“What do you mean?” asked my boss, Paddy Moran. He didn’t take an eye off the little ones.
“Usually folks crawl away from a bar.”
The initial stunned silence having been broken and thrown away, made others more willing to speak up. Fred put down a tray of glasses and walked over to our tiny visitors.
“Look at the babies,” said our resident satyr busboy in that baby voice adults get around babies and dogs. Even in the bar Fred hides his physical differences. Special shoes covered his hooves and a baseball cap with our trademark shot o’ gold concealed his small goat-like horns. “Where’s your mommies?”
The toddler answered in a strong Brooklyn accent, obviously annoyed with the sweet tone he was being addressed with. “None of your damn business. You always this nosy?”
Fred contemplated before answering. “Usually.”
“Goody for you. Now do me a favor.” The toddler motioned to Fred to bend down and come nearer. Once the satyr was close enough, the toddler grabbed hold of his shirt and pulled Fred down onto all fours. With this living bridge in place, the infant tried to climb up on Fred’s shoulders. The toddler had to push on the infant’s butt to get him all the way up. The toddler scaled Mt. Fred and helped the infant climb onto a bar stool before mounting one himself.
“Thanks,” said the infant, looking down at Fred. “I appreciate the help.”
“Yeah, what he said,” muttered the toddler.
Despite being sixty something, which is actually considered adolescence for a satyr, Fred was sometimes a little clueless. Occasionally, he was a lot clueless. In fairness, it’s probably because he’s only lived in New York for a couple of years. As Fred puts it, he hasn’t been in this country a long distance, but even he knew eloquently talking babies were out of the ordinary.
“How come you can talk so well and B.G. can’t?” asked Fred.
“Maybe he’s stupid,” said the toddler.
“Hey! B.G. isn’t dumb! She’s precious,” said Fred. B.G. was short for Beatrice Gerald, our waitress Toni’s kid. She’ll be two next Christmas. B.G., not Toni. B.G.’s age was about halfway between these two. The satyr adored B.G., maybe even more than he adored her mama. Sadly for him, Toni reciprocated his affections in every way but the romantic. In my opinion, it was only a matter of time. Unfortunately, my opinions don’t usually carry a lot of weight. I’ve been meaning to have them exercise more to help correct that, but it’s rough finding the time. “Besides, you can’t be that smart or you’d know B.G. is a she, not a he.”
“Whatever,” said the toddler with disinterest. “At least I didn’t name my kid after a disco group.”
“Russ, be nice,” chided the infant.
“Yeah, right, Steven. I’ll be nice. As nice as my parents were when they named me Russell.”
Personally, I thought the name was fine, but I had let their appearance distract me from my bartending duties. Maybe in other bars talking babies would justify dereliction in duty, but not in Bulfinche’s. To rectify my lapse in manners, I moved to take their order, but the boss beat me to it.
“Russ’s not such a bad name,” said Paddy, as he walked down his runway on the inside of the bar. Paddy’s a tad on the untall size. Comes with being a leprechaun. He’s sensitive about the height issue, so he built the runway to make himself look of average height. If Paddy was the least bit phased by the two talking babies, it didn’t show. No reason why it should. It was far from the strangest thing we’ve ever seen. I’d only give it the number two spot for the month.
“Uh huh. What name are you saddled with?” asked Russ the toddler.
“Padriac Moran,” Paddy said in his brogue.
“Padriac? You’re right. Compared to that, Russ’s not half bad. You shorten that to Paddy?”
“That works. Do you have anything to drink in this place?”
“Nope. We’re really a Laundromat. The pub thing is just a gimmick to make sure there isn’t a long line for the dryers,” I said.
“Ignore Murphy. The rest of us do. We have anything your heart desires,” said Paddy. I would have said little heart, but Paddy won’t make short jokes about those of lesser stature, although he likes to stand next to them in pictures. Thinks it makes him look taller.
“Anything? You aren’t worried about losing your liquor license?” asked Russ.
“License?” asked Paddy with a sarcastic smile. “I need a license?”
Russ smiled back and slapped the bar top with his open palm. “About time we found an open-minded bar. Give me a whiskey. Three fingers.”
“Yours or mine?” asked Paddy.
Russ looked at Paddy’s hands. “Yours. Mine would barely manage to wet my whistle.”
“How about ye, Steven? Are ye drinking?” asked Paddy.
“Beer,” said the infant.
I pulled Paddy aside. “Boss, I know we usually ignore drinking age laws, but isn’t this a little extreme?”
“Murphy, ye know the rules. If a patron can order it and give a good enough reason for needing the drink, we give it to them,” Paddy said as he put down the drinks. The little ones grabbed for the glasses, but they were just out of reach, even with Russ standing up on tiptoes against the bar. “They’re yours lads, provided ye got a good enough reason.”
“How about we just pay double?” asked Steven.
“Nope,” said Paddy. “First drink’s free.”
“Forget it. We’re out of here,” said Russ, standing and walking to the edge of the stool. “Hey busboy, get over here and drop to your knees. We need to leave.”
A tiny hand reached over, barely touching Russ. “Wait. I want to stay.”
“I don’t want to talk to these yahoos,” said Russ with a pout.
“I do. Maybe they’ll listen to us. Nobody else will,” said Steven. “Especially at the Center.”
“I don’t know,” said Russ, teetering, both on the stool and the subject.
“Please?” pleaded Steven.
“Fine, you know I haven’t been able to deny you anything since we were married,” said Russ.
“Married?” I said. “Aren’t you a little young?”
“Shut up and listen to what Steven has to say. Maybe you’ll learn something,” said Russ, as he started to reach in his diaper and fiddle about. He pulled out a brown cylindrical object in his tiny hands. “Got a light?”
“What is that?” I asked, trying not to gag as I spoke.
Russ laughed, having picked up on my thoughts. “Don’t worry. It’s a cigar. My parents don’t like me smoking, so I gotta smuggle ’em out. They only look in my diapers when they have to. Who can blame them? I only have five teeth, so I can’t bite off the tip. Think you could help me?”
“Sure,” I said, tearing off a small stub and tossing it in a garbage pail behind the bar. I lit it with the lighter we keep behind the bar, and handed it back to him. Like Paddy said, we try not to make judgement calls. Wisecracks are another matter. “Aren’t you afraid it’ll stunt your growth?”
“That’s an old wives’ tale. Thanks for the light,” said Russ, stopping a moment before the cigar reached his mouth. He turned to the other patrons, every one of which was watching him intently. New York City’s ban on smoking in bars and restaurants must have crossed his mind because he actually appeared nervous. “Anyone mind if I smoke?”
Hercules, made famous by his legendary deeds of old and employed in the present with the job of bouncer at Bulfinche’s, came over. “Isn’t it a bit late to ask now?”
“Wow,” said Russ, looking over Herc’s massive physique. It took his little eyes a moment to take everything in. “You getting enough steroids there, big guy?”
“Never touch the stuff. Don’t need to,” replied Herc. It was the truth. Being the son of Zeus had certain advantages. Herc didn’t even have to work out if he didn’t want to. It would be enough to make you sick, if he wasn’t such a nice guy.
“Right and I’m the Queen of Sheba,” said Russ.
“Welcome, your highness. I hadn’t realized we had royalty with us tonight,” said Paddy. “Also your highness shouldn’t worry about the smoke. It’s taken care of.” Paddy pointed at round devices attached to the ceiling.
“What? The smoke detectors? The sprinklers aren’t going to wet me are they? I can do a good enough job of that myself. I haven’t mastered potty training yet.”
“Not sprinklers, air cleaners. Blow some smoke and watch,” I suggested.
The diaper-clad toddler did as I suggested, and took a puff. He blew a pair of smoke rings that looked to be the result of a well practiced skill. A light on the air cleaner nearest to Russ blinked on and the device silently came to life. It drew the smoke all the way up to the ceiling and sucked it in. I was standing within three feet of the little guy and couldn’t smell a whiff of the cigar.
“Now that’s impressive,” said Russ, blowing more smoke just to watch it disappear into the ceiling. “Much more interesting than the mobile in my crib.”
“Even does a great job on the New York City smog,” I said. We had the best air in the city limits. Yuppies had been know to leave their oxygen bars just to inhale in our barroom.
While we had been speaking, the front door opened again and two more babes walked in. These were definitely of the adult female variety. The sight of Ryth and Toni was enough to draw attention away from the talking babies. It was due more to first than the latter, no offense to Toni. She’s an attractive woman, but Ryth is a dream come true, of the moist male variety. The lady is a succubus, a demon seductress. The sight of her would make any centerfold instantly feel inadequate and homely. Before Toni took the job, Ryth worked here as a waitress. That might seem an odd job for someone with her resumé, but it really wasn’t any odder than the one her husband still has. Mathew is our dishwasher. Not that there’s anything wrong with washing dishes. It’s good, honest work. You just don’t see many angels doing it. Mathew was no slouch in the looks department either. Women swooned at the sight of him. Sadly, the only way I can get ladies to swoon over me is to give up bathing for a month.
Other than being gorgeous, they looked like normal people. Looks can be deceiving, which is why you should always check their references. Neither of the pair’s former employers would give the couple a positive endorsement. In fact, Heaven and Hell are hunting the couple because they ran off together after we had helped them avert the Apocalypse. Love will make people, even the non-human kind, do the craziest things. They’ve managed to stay ahead of the demons and angels still hunting them thanks largely to cloaking amulets made by our chef, Demeter. They let the pair hide in plain sight. Ryth even makes a handsome living running a phone sex service, using her skills learned in the Pit. She raised the capital in just five months from her waitress tips here. The thing I find even more impressive than that is Ryth doesn’t so much as bat an eyelash at anyone besides Mathew.
Mathew had followed the ladies in, carrying B.G. The quartet were returning from a picnic in Central Park. As soon as B.G. saw Fred she started fidgeting so much Mathew had to put her down. Her tiny legs immediately ran her over to the satyr.
“Freddy!” she exclaimed, as she toddled over with her arms up. Fred lifted her off the floor in a huge hug.
“Hello, sweetpea. I missed you. Did you have a good time?” asked Fred.
B.G. nodded her head. “Uh huh.”
“Cute kid. You must be proud,” said Russ.
“Why yes, I am,” said Toni as she turned and saw the two babies on bar stools. “What’s the gag, Murphy? You learn ventriloquism?”
“Nope,” I said. “I’d never use a dummy that ugly.”
“Nice one,” said Russ. “I think I’m beginning to like you.”
“Be still my heart,” I said.
“You’re really talking?” asked Toni.
“It’s not that unusual,” chimed in Steven.
“There’s two of you?” asked Toni in disbelief.
“Why? You see more?” asked Russ, turning his head side to side and scanning the room. “I’ll have what she’s having.”
“No, I don’t see more of you,” Toni said with attitude.
“Then it was a stupid question. Listen, sweetheart, let me ask you a personal question,” said Russ, motioning her down so he could whisper in her ear.
“What?” asked Toni, bending in close.
“Are you breast feeding?” As Russ was speaking, he was staring directly into Toni’s cleavage.
“Well, its been a while since my last meal. I’m getting hungry, and being a growing boy and all, I was wondering if…”
“No! Absolutely not,” exclaimed Toni, pulling back, her face dark.
“But the guy behind the bar said anything. Paddy, is it too late to change my order?” asked Russ.
“’Fraid so. By drink, I meant anything that could fit in a glass,” said Paddy.
“That’s out then. Need a pitcher each to fit those,” said Russ.
“Excuse me!?” said Toni, looking like she was about to deck the baby. Had he been an adult, Russ would have already been knocked on the floor.
“Chill out. It’s a compliment. It’s not like I said shot glass. I was just hungry.”
B.G. had been listening, and toddled over to the stools. “Baby hungry?”
“Yeah, kid. I’m hungry,” said Russ.
“Want baba?” asked B.G., holding up her bottle.
“Thanks kid,” Russ said, laying on his belly so he could reach it without getting off the stool. The little guy had it in his mouth and was drinking before Toni could stop him. “Mmm, good stuff even if it’s not straight from the pump.” Russ gave Toni a lecherous wink.
“I can’t believe you took my daughter’s bottle,” said Toni. The expression on her face was not a happy one.
“Toni, you’re always telling her to share,” I said.
“Shut up, Murphy,” spat Toni.
“Russ, give the kid back her bottle,” said Steven.
“Stuff’s vintage. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s about your feeding time. Try a little nip,” said Russ, holding out the bottle. Steven took it and tilted his head quizzically.
“All right, what the heck. I am hungry,” said Steven, putting bottle to lips. He sucked on it and finished half of what remained.
“Wait a minute!” shouted Toni. “I am not a soft drink machine!” Russ began to open his mouth. “Don’t say a word,” warned Toni. Russ chose to listen, but raised his eyebrows up and down, somehow managing to look lewd and cute at the same time.
“Thank you,” said Steven with a more innocent smile as he handed the bottle back. “It was very kind of your daughter to share. You’ve raised her well.”
“B.G. good,” said B.G. proudly, puffing up her chest.
“Yes, you are, sweetheart,” said Toni, picking up her daughter. “But you’re not getting your baba back until I disinfect it.”
“Babies nice?” asked B.G.
“That’s debatable,” said Toni. In an attempt to minimize her daughter’s exposure to the obvious bad influence of these odd babies, she carried her daughter across the room so she could play with Fred.
“Uh oh,” said Steven, holding his stomach with stubby arms. “I’ve got gas. I need burping.”
Hercules was still standing nearby.
“Hey, steroid boy. Do me a favor. Push our stools next to each other,” said Russ.
“Sure, bottle breath,” replied Herc with a smile. Russ put his arms around Steven in a baby bear hug and hit his back a few times. Steven let out a small belch.
“Ah, that’s the stuff,” said Steven, with a grin of relief.
“I think it’s my turn,” said Russ, hand over his belly. “Steven’s too small to burp me.”
“Want me to help?” asked Herc.
“No way. With those arms, you’d tap me and I’d end up a pancake. I was thinking about that lovely lady over there.”
“Me?” asked Ryth, who had been watching the babies with amused interest.
“Yep,” said Russ, again making with the eyebrows.
“What the heck. I need to learn anyway,” said Ryth with a wink at Mathew. She picked up Russ and put him over her left shoulder. Ryth rocked him gently as she patted his back. Russ let out a burp that would have made a frat boy proud.
“Thanks. I needed that,” said Russ. “Sorry about the mess on your shoulder.”
I handed Ryth a bar rag. She switched Russ to her other arm and wiped up the baby burp. “Don’t worry about it.”
“You wouldn’t happen to be breast feeding, would you?” asked Russ hopefully.
“That’s my wife, little one,” warned Mathew.
“Oh good. Then you would know. Is she?”
“No,” said Mathew, strangely beaming.
Russ looked wistfully down at Ryth’s cleavage and tried to make a grab under the guise of holding himself up. An amused Ryth caught his hand before it could reach the mountains of the promised land. Ryth gave him a raised eyebrow. Russ gave an innocent shrug that fooled nobody.
“A pity,” he said.
Ryth chuckled and shook her head as she put the talking toddler back on the stool.
“At least not yet,” announced Ryth.
“Not yet?” asked Paddy, a sly smile perking up the corners of his mouth. “When then?”
“In about eight months. We’re pregnant!” said Ryth, taking Mathew’s hand in hers. As they stared into each other’s eyes, you could almost hear violin music in the background. Love is a wonderful thing.
“Congratulations!” shouted Paddy, running around the bar to hug the happy couple. “A round of drinks on the house. Non-alcoholic for the mother-to-be, of course.”
“Of course,” said Ryth, glowing. I think if we had turned out the lights, she would have still been beaming.
The rest of us lined up to add our congratulations. While we were so engaged, Russ managed to climb up on the bar and was walking across it to where Paddy had slid the drinks. A second before Russ could grab the whiskey, Paddy put his hand over it.
Russ looked up at him like the cat that had swallowed the Thanksgiving turkey.
“Get off my bar,” said Paddy, all traces of humor gone from his face.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” said Russ.
“Get off my bar or you will get the spanking of a lifetime,” said Paddy through clenched teeth.
“Sounds like fun,” Russ said. Paddy only glared back. “All right, I’m getting down.”
Safely back on his stool, Russ asked, “What’s the big deal?”
“You don’t mess with the boss’ bar,” I said. “It’s one of the few things that makes him mad.”
“Why?” asked Russ. “What’s the big deal about a bar?”
“It was made by me late wife, Bulfinche,” said Paddy.
“Oh.” Russ was looking in the boss’ eyes and could see there a love that still burned brighter than a supernova. “Then I’m sorry. It won’t happen again,” promised Russ, extending his little hand. “Please accept my apology.”
Paddy took the hand. “Apology accepted. Ye both can have the drinks once ye explain why such young lads need them.”
“The pressure of being a child prodigy is hard to deal with,” said Russ. “I first spoke at ten months. Not some nonsense like ‘dada’ or ‘mama’. It was the entire second act of Hamlet. Hardly my best performance, but it got rave reviews.”
“Russ, the truth,” chastised Steven.
“It was Hamlet.”
“That’s not the part I meant.”
Russ stared at Steven, then shrugged and threw up his hands. “Fine. You do it. It’s your funeral.”
“Wouldn’t be the first,” said Steven. “I drink because I need to forget.”
“What does a lad as young as yourself need to forget?” asked Paddy.
“Oh, I don’t know,” intoned Steven sarcastically. “Maybe lifetimes of pain followed by more deaths than even I can count. Then knowing that death isn’t the end, only a twisted beginning of pain and suffering. Leaving this life is a cakewalk compared to what comes after.”
“Harvesting?” I asked.
Before the infant could answer, Hermes broke into the conversation. His accomplice for the verbal break-in was a look of guilt on his face. The legendary messenger of the Olympians was also on the boss’ payroll these days. In all the time I’ve known him, guilt was one emotion I’ve never seen Hermes express.
“You’re avadars?” Hermes asked.
“Yep,” said Russ, puffing his cigar and giving Hermes the once-over like he was seeing him for the first time. Russ didn’t seem pleased with the sight.
“They’re gods in human form?” I asked.
“No, that’s an avatar,” said Steven. “An avadar has never been divine. Not that it can’t happen, but usually we are just food for the gods.”
“Food? As in chow?” I asked.
“Not exactly. An avadar is a soul trapped in the cycle of life, born and reborn into new bodies, ad infinitum.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
“I wish,” said Steven.
“Do you guys remember everything?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” said Steven.
“So you’re basically immortal? Doesn’t sound that bad,” chimed in Toni. She has obviously ignored Joseph’s speeches on the subject. The Wandering Jew is not exactly thrilled with everlasting life and has spent several lifetimes attempting suicide. Fortunately, he hasn’t tried it since he’s been able to hang his hat here.
“Death and rebirth aren’t so bad. It’s what happens in between that tears us apart,” said Steven bitterly.
“Tell us,” said Paddy, laying a gentle hand on Steven’s shoulder.
“Ask your friend in the baseball hat with the curly hair,” suggested Russ, venom in his voice.
“Hermes?” asked Paddy.
“Hermes!?” blurted Steven, almost falling off his stool. Russ nodded, giving Hermes a dark look.
“Gods want to know about the human experience, but few want to get down in the dirt and check it out for themselves. Avadars provide another option. Their newly dead spirits are ripe with memories of life. The gods can harvest them and experience the mortal condition secondhand, without all the mess,” explained Hermes, his face pale and drawn.
“Why don’t you tell your friends here exactly what that entails?” asked Russ.
Hermes sighed. “The god captures the soul and rips the experiences from the avadar. I understand it’s quite painful.”
“You understand it’s quite painful!?” screamed Russ. “Like it ain’t nothing to rip into someone’s essence and steal it? Imagine being submerged in red hot lava while someone yanks out your intestines with a hook. That doesn’t even begin to describe it.”
“It takes most of the gestation time in the womb to soothe the agony,” added Steven. “And the thing with being an avadar is you never forget the pain. You never forget anything. It’s part of the package. Sure, you don’t always remember, but that isn’t the same as forgetting.”
“How horrible,” said Father Mike. Everyone in the bar nodded their heads in agreement. “How could anyone do such a thing?”
“You want to answer that one, Pyschopompous?” spat Russ to Hermes. Pyschopompous is Hermes’ title as the god guide who helps lead the faithful dead to Hades.
Hermes swallowed hard. “No, but it’s best I do. Some do it for a thrill, others for knowledge or power. I did it out of curiosity.”
“You?” asked Paddy, disappointment coloring his voice.
“I’m not proud of it.”
“Why…?” asked Paddy.
“As I said, I was curious. I had seen Zeus, Hera, Ares and so many others partake. They claimed it surpassed even Dionysus’ ambrosia. I wanted to see what it was like.”
“You’re blaming it on peer pressure?” I said.
“Yes. I only did it once,” said Hermes.
“Only once? Is that supposed to make me feel any better?” asked Russ bitterly.
“So it was you,” said Hermes.
“Yes, it was. Even with hundreds of languages at my disposal, I cannot begin to curse you for what you did,” said Russ.
“You’re right. I offer my deepest apologies,” said Hermes, head bowed and humble, probably for the first time in his existence.
“Words are pretty empty and meaningless,” said Russ.
“Then I offer you one wish. Anything within my power to grant is yours, so long as it does no harm to another, directly or indirectly.”
“Like you’d keep your word.”
“Hermes will keep his word,” said Paddy, frowning. This revelation had upset him, but Paddy protects his own first and foremost. Hermes was family and nodded his thanks.
Russ looked doubtful. “Okay, swear it on the Styx and maybe I’ll believe you.”
“I so swear,” said Hermes.
“Swear it on Bulfinche’s taps,” added Paddy.
“I swear it,” promised Hermes. “What is your wish?”
Russ put his cigar in an ashtray and stroked his chin. “This works much better with a beard,” said the toddler. “Honestly, I can’t think of anything. I think I’ll save it, let it hang over your head for awhile.”
“That’s your prerogative,” said Hermes. Russ nodded and motioned to Paddy. The boss slid him his three fingers of whiskey. The toddler sipped it triumphantly. I did my best not to mention that a good portion of it was dribbling down the sides of his mouth. Paddy slid Steven his beer.
“This reminiscing has got me remembering. I’ll need something stronger. Make mine a whiskey too,” said Steven, motioning for Hermes to hand him his baby bottle from the stroller. It was buried under baby clothes. He probably had been dressed earlier in the day, but I guess the summer heat had been too much for him. Hermes passed the bottle on to Paddy. “Mix it with the baby formula, will you? Makes it easier to stomach.”
“Sure,” said Paddy, handing it back. Steven began sucking on the nipple.
Paddy looked around at Herc and Dionysus, god of wine and our other bartender. “Anyone else have anything to confess?”
Hermes butted in. “Harvesting is not an option for demigods. They are already half mortal and have no need to experience the human condition vicariously. And, as far as I know, Demeter never partook.”
Paddy nodded with mute approval.
“I can’t believe you couldn’t come up with anything,” said Steven to Russ.
“Why? What would you wish for?” asked Russ.
“To stop being an avadar,” said Steven.
Russ turned to Hermes. “Can you do that?”
“No,” answered Hermes.
“So much for that,” said Russ.
“Don’t give up so easy,” said Steven. “Can you make us forget everything? Start over from scratch? Because, I gotta be honest, whiskey and baby formula just ain’t cutting it any more.”
Hermes thought about it. “Yes, I could make you forget.”
“Really!?” said the youngsters in unison.
“I don’t know,” said Russ.
“Please,” begged Steven. Russ looked down into the infants eyes, then up into Hermes’.
“Okay, do it,” said Russ.
“I need to get something. Paddy?” said Hermes. As if reading his mind, Paddy handed him a large beer stein, the type with the closing top. “I’ll be gone awhile but when I come back, I’ll have what you need.”
Before Russ could say a word, Hermes had left the bar by way of the door that led to the parking garage, the lower levels of which is a nexus into other realms.
“I’m still confused,” I said.
“You’ll get used to it,” said Russ.
“Already am. What I want to know is why gods need to harvest you guys,” I said.
“There is a war going on that encompasses all of creation. What they get from us gives them an edge,” explained Russ. Ryth and Mathew looked at each other and nodded knowingly. “You know all about it?”
Mathew nodded. “We do.”
“Then you tell me the participants,” said Russ.
“Heaven and Hell.” As deserters, it was a war they knew about intimately.
“Two sides? What a pleasure that would be,” said Steven. “We might manage to get away every so often. The truth is, sometimes we do get missed in all the astral hoopla and get recycled before they find us. Happens maybe once every two or three hundred lives. The life that follows can be almost pleasant. The rest of them tend to suck. When we bite the big one, everyone is after us. Divinities, angels, and demons.” Ryth and Mathew looked at each other. Apparently this was news to them. Or maybe I was misreading guilt. “Most of the powers that be join in the fun. With hundreds of sides fighting with us as the prize, getting away is rarely an option. Occasionally, there are ways.”
“Sid?” said Russ.
“Yep,” said Steven.
“Now there’s a guy who got away good,” said Russ, nodding his head in admiration.
“Sid?” asked Father Mike.
“Siddhatha Gautama,” said Steven.
“The Buddha,” said Father Mike.
“Very good Father,” said Russ, mildly impressed. “Not many priests would know that one. Sid managed to get himself promoted to godhood while nobody was looking. Started a religion where people acknowledged gods, but didn’t worship them or bother asking for divine intervention. A beautiful way to even the score a little.”
“Guerilla warfare,” added Steven.
“Gotta fight your battles where you can. When he died, none of the other divinities could touch him. Sid’s still locked in the death-rebirth cycle thing, but he made arrangements to have his followers go out and find him after each birth as an infant. Takes some of the edge off. Sid even set up some of his friends as holy men to get the same treatment. I was one for a few lifetimes, but it got old. I’m not cut out to be a religious leader. Not that other religions haven’t been founded by others doing what we do,” said Russ.
“Such as?” asked Father Mike.
“Christianity for one,” said Russ. Father Mike raised an eyebrow. “I mean no disrespect, Father, but look at it from my perspective. The Son of God comes down and experiences life as a human firsthand. Then when he dies, does he get harvested? Nope, goes bodily up to Heaven. Everyone makes a big deal out of something I’ve been doing for a little shorter than there’s been people. Breeds a hell of a lot of resentment. Probably why I never stay Christian for long.”
“Just out of curiosity, aren’t your parents going to be worried about you?” asked Toni.
“Nah. They think we’re at the Nova Center For The Gifted over on Park Avenue. Place our parents shipped us off to when they found out we were geniuses,” said Steven. “Right now we are in self-directed study. We have the video monitor that’s supposed to be babysitting us on a constant feedback loop. They don’t even know we’re gone.”
“So you’re geniuses?” I asked.
“No, but when you can complete a high school education by the age of four or five, that’s what they’ve labeled us lately. Guy who runs the place, Dr. Martin, is a quack. He has published five papers on child prodigies. Every one of them was crap, but it’s enough to convince the folks that he knows what he’s doing,” said Russ.
“Still genius is better than what they used to call us,” said Steven.
“Very true,” agreed Russ.
“Which was?” I asked.
“Imagine the Dark Ages, if you will. You have not experienced dying until you have been an infant burned at the stake,” said Steven.
“That’s horrible,” said Fred.
“I agree, but in those days a talking baby was viewed as a demon or the Devil himself. Total nonsense. Lucifer doesn’t bother with personal possession any more than Odin does. Lesser demons, sure. Sadly, the righteous were ignorant of this and doomed themselves to the very Hell they were fighting against by committing infanticide,” said Steven.
“Before that it was worse,” said Russ. “We were treated as gods. It was how the Pharaohs first got their ‘divinity’. Problem was, the real gods got pissed off and came for us themselves. Early no less. Very messy.”
“The Dark Ages are over, at least for now, but they lasted longer than most historians would admit. Much darker than the womb,” said Steven.
“Is the womb really dark?” asked Ryth, rubbing her stomach gently and imagining the child within.
“No,” said Russ. “The optic nerve is one of the first to develop and the fetus gets quite a light show. The closest thing I can compare it to is the effect of hallucinogenic drugs. Part of the lure of addiction is that the high is like a flashback to simpler times in the womb.”
“So do drugs help you?” asked Fred.
“Not really. A pale imitation of the real thing. I rarely bother with drugs. I remember the original too vividly to bother. Besides, I will be back there soon enough. The womb is one of the greatest places to be. Except for the two times I was aborted. Being sucked down that vacuum tube…” Russ shuddered. “Those were the exceptions to the rule. Most of the time it’s great. Unlimited food, warmth, happiness and love. You can actually feel love in the womb. It’s almost tangible. Truth be told, it’s my favorite part of the life cycle, the part where I can rest and recover.” Russ looked up at Ryth’s face and gave her a wink. “Don’t worry. Your little one will be quite happy in there. I would be.”
“Thank you,” said Ryth, as she kissed Russ on the top of his head. It was hard to see through the puff of cigar smoke he exhaled, but I swear he blushed.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Can’t anything be done to stop this?” asked Mathew.
“Not as far as we know. No one wants to buck the system, not even gods. The funny part is, the harvesters aren’t even getting what they think they are. Our experiences are too tainted by the awareness of what we are. It dulls and numbs them somehow,” said Russ, taking a swig and emptying his glass. “How about another round, since they’re on the house?”
“Only the first one’s free,” said Paddy. “And you missed the celebration round.”
“You’d take money from a baby?”
“Unless you were planning to pay in candy?”
Russ chuckled and pulled some crumpled bills out of his diaper. Paddy poured another glass, only about a finger and a half this time.
The babies were beginning to get melancholy. Herc made an attempt to cheer them up with a story. The only thing greater than Hercules’ strength, is his skill at weaving a tale.
“You think your childhood was rough? I had the queen of the gods gunning for me. I was barely two months old when she sent a pair of vipers into my crib to kill my brother and I. One felt like it was tickling my feet and I managed to grab it by the tail and crack it like a whip. It’s head flew right off with its mouth open. The fangs sunk into the neck of the second snake and it dropped dead. When my parents came in I was playing with the body of the snake like it was a scarf.”
“You may have a good baby story, but the story of my birth has you beat,” boasted Dionysus. “My and Herc’s dad fooled around on his wife big time, and she was the jealous kind. She found out my mother was pregnant with me and conned her into demanding a wish from my father. Zeus was no match for a pretty face so he caved, and promised her a wish swearing on the Styx. She wanted to see Zeus in all his splendor. He was beyond kinky and had a tendency of showing up in animal forms, so I guess she expected a man. What she got was lightning, thunder and dead. I was almost to term and because I was five-eighths god…”
“Five-eighths?” I asked. “Not half?”
“Poseidon was my mother’s great grandfather. Anyway, because I was part divine and it had been his power that killed me, Zeus was able to restore me to life. Hera thought I was dead and to make sure she kept thinking that Zeus had Hermes hid me in Nysa among the nymphs and satyrs.” Nysa was also Fred’s home town.
Herc spoke up. “Speaking of Hermes, on the day he was born he stole a herd of cattle and invented a musical instrument…”
“What I did isn’t important. What I have here is,” said Hermes, as he walked in the door from the garage.
“What is it?” asked Steven, staring hopefully at the beer stein.
“Water from the Lethe,” said Hermes, wearily putting the stein on the bar.
“So? What good is that going to do us?” asked Russ.
“The Lethe is the river of forgetfulness that runs through Hades’ realm. The newly dead drink from it when they want to forget their lives before their deaths.”
“So if we drank it, we’d forget everything?” asked Steven.
“Yes,” said Hermes.
“And we’d never remember again?” said Steven hopefully.
“Never. A complete tabula rasa, a blank slate.”
“Wow,” said Steven.
“Any trouble with Hades?” asked Paddy.
“Nada. He never even knew I was there,” bragged Hermes.
“You have enough for us both?” asked Steven.
“More than enough. All you’ll need is a few mouthfuls,” explained Hermes.
“Excellent. Set ’em up bartender and we’ll knock ’em down,” said Steven.
“We could use the water to make you coffee,” I said.
“Why?” asked Russ.
“Haven’t you ever heard of a Café Lethe?” I asked.
“Now you see why we ignore Murphy,” said Paddy. He filled a shotglass and put it in front of Russ then took Steven’s bottle. It got a shot of it’s own. Paddy replaced the top and handed it back to the infant.
Steven raised his bottle, feverishly happy. “Bottoms up.”
Russ stared at his shot with a look reminiscent of a deer caught in the headlights of a semi.
“No,” said Russ, pushing the glass away.
“What do you mean, no?” asked Steven. “This is our chance at a normal life.”
“But just one life. It won’t make us normal. After that one it starts all over again, only we won’t know what’s going on. Think back to your first harvest and the absolute terror and agony. It takes half a dozen harvests before any of us even figure out what’s happening. I don’t want to live though that a second time. The first time was enough to drive me quite mad,” confessed Russ.
“But the chance for one normal life is worth the pain,” said Steven.
“I disagree,” replied Russ.
“Anything I can do to convince you?” asked Steven. Russ nodded no. “So, I guess this is goodbye, huh?”
“I guess,” said Russ. Both little guys were crying. So were some of we spectators. It was almost like watching someone getting ready to die.
“You won’t try to stop me?”
“You’re old enough to know what you’re doing,” said Russ. It seemed a strange statement for a toddler to be telling an infant. “I’m going to miss you.”
“I’ll miss you too,” said Steven, hugging Russ.
“No, you won’t,” said Hermes. “All your memories, all that makes you you will be erased. Who you are will cease to be. Before you drink, make sure that’s what you want because there is no second chance, no turning back.”
“Shouldn’t you take some time to think about it?” I asked.
“I’ve done nothing but think about it for centuries. I’m sure,” said Steven, picking up his bottle. “Cheers.”
Russ rejected the shot glass with the water and picked up his whiskey glass instead. The rest of us picked up what we were drinking and raised our glasses. Paddy spoke for us all.
Steven threw back his head and sucked on the nipple of that bottle like a newborn calf on his mother’s udder. Within seconds, his eyes glazed over and he would have fallen head first onto the floor if Hermes hadn’t caught him and put him gently into his stroller.
“He’ll sleep for a few hours, then he’ll be like any other infant his age,” said Hermes.
“For a god, you ain’t half bad,” said Russ, climbing down by sliding to the edge of his stool and dropping down.
“Do I have your forgiveness?” asked Hermes.
“Maybe. I’ll get back to you on it. But you did right by Steven and kept your promise, so I’ve gotta say thanks.” Russ reached up his hand. Hermes reached down and shook it.
“Russ, one question,” I said.
“Why’d you guys pick this bar?”
“The shot glass with the rainbow in the front window. It caught my eye.” Makes sense. Paddy bought the place with his pot of gold. Now rainbows lead troubled souls to our door. Instead of gold, they get us. The value of the trade off is open to debate, but in my opinion it’s a better deal. “What can I say? At this age I have a weakness for bright and shiny objects.”
“How are ye going to explain this to his parents?” asked Paddy. Russ stepped up behind the stroller and pushed it toward the door with Steven still asleep inside.
“I ain’t. I’m going blame it on Dr. Martin. He’s been exploiting us long enough. Time for some payback,” said Russ with a cherub’s grin.
“Ye are always welcome here, Russ,” said Paddy. “Remember that.”
“I will. Best whiskey I’ve ever had and that’s saying something.”
“Thanks,” said Paddy with pride. He brewed the whiskey himself and I have never heard of its equal.
“Before I go, I have one more favor to ask,” said Russ.
“What?” asked Paddy.
“I need to be changed,” he said. Paddy looked over at me.
“Not a chance,” I said.