“This city belongs to your king,” he said. “And you belong to him. A corporation, you recall, protects a man from liability. You have no need for such protection—” at this, he smiled brightly, “—because your king protects you from liability.”
Lily’s uncle smiled brightly, chuckling.
“Oh,” I groaned. “I’ve never had that experience before.”
“You have probably lived a lifetime of the opposite experience, haven’t you?” Lily’s father asked.
I looked at the floor, then at the leg of the chair he was sitting on. “I suppose so,” I said. “The constant demands were a factor in the decision to sell my house and walk away from the city. I did not want to serve in his military, pay his taxes, or anything else of the kind. Even now, knowing the circumstances of travel beyond the city, I still find it more attractive than property ownership under the king.”
“If you whisper much louder,” said Lily’s uncle in low tones, “agents will appropriate your person to another venue, whence you will nevermore be perceived by man. But,” he continued in a brighter tone, “you will still be a servant to the king.”
“This is the language of assassination and insurrection you are speaking,” said Lily’s father.
“I don’t want to kill the King,” I responded.
“No, but you are using the language of an insurrectionary,” he said. Lily’s uncle looked at me with his half-grin. I didn’t know what to make of this turn in the conversation.
“I was more struck,” Lily’s uncle resumed, “that he calls them the Brother and the Sister.”
“Why does that strike you?” Lily’s father asked.
“Because it’s latterly nonsense,” Lily’s uncle said, “Foisted upon this population by insubstantiality which has marked the decline of this last generation.”
The names of the rivers was a recent indication that our civilization was doomed?
“These state religions,” cried out an exasperated Lily’s uncle, “one right after another! They receive assiduously, but they are idle in bequeathal. They redesignate so that one young man rises up with one set of surface beliefs, then the next young man rises up with an entirely different set of surface beliefs; they’re nothing but lily pads in a shallow pond, these beliefs.”
Then he returned from his raving to me, and he demanded, “Why do you call the rivers Brother and Sister?”
“Well,” I began, “not that I believe in myths, but I thought that it was a quaint way to add character to muddy water.”
“You don’t believe in myths?” asked Lily’s uncle.
“Not really. We’re just mud, anyway; what difference does it make?” I said, half-believing what was saying.
“How does the myth of Brother and Sister come to you?” he asked.
I said, “My father taught me that the son and daughter of the Almighty God provoked him to anger by not glorifying the lesser beings, that is, us men, so he cast them out of his palace onto the earth. They assumed the form of dragons of fire, intent on destroying the lesser beings, but their father trapped their heads, one of them with his right hand, and the other of them with his left foot. With his left hand, he tied together their tails, right here in the city, in fact. He raised up his hand to smite them, and they begged for mercy. He agreed not to kill them if they were to forever quench their fires.
“So here they are to this day, squirming in their beds until the end of the world, the Brother and the Sister.”
Lily’s uncle looked at me intently, asking, “Where do you think the palace of the Almighty God is?”
I thought for a moment, then said, “I suppose it must be somewhere that is not known as earth.”
“And you don’t think that this myth makes any difference?” he asked.
“Brother,” interrupted Lily’s father. “That is not a fair question. He did not say that the myth makes any difference; he said that believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
“I did say that,” I said, “but the myth doesn’t make any difference if believing in the myth does not make any difference.”
There was a stunned look on the face of Lily’s uncle.
Lily asked, “But does a myth not teach even if it is not true?”
“Many things teach,” I replied. “Where does teaching come from? Why would I believe that the palace of this myth teaches that there is a transcendental existence beyond what I can see and perceive if there really isn’t one?”
“In your mind,” asked Lily’s mother, “is there a palace?”
I looked at Occuri. I remarked to myself that this was the first time that she had spoken to me in a day or so; I couldn’t remember hearing her participate in any conversation that involved me. Then I thought to myself that this was the most extraordinary family, not for the questions, not necessarily, but for the earnestness of their relationships.
“There is a palace,” I said. “There must be.”
“Do you believe in a palace because of this myth?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“But you do not believe in the myth,” she propositioned for me.
“No,” I said. “The myth is utter nonsense.”
A smile crept across the face of Lily’s father. His eyebrows hung low over his eyes.