This week's story is about sibling rivalry on a grand scale (or a bear scale? those bears were pretty big in person).
Or at least a divine scale.
Sibling rivalry gets more complicated when your sister is the Goddess of Spring.
There’s a Goddess of Spring. Everyone knows that.
Some people even know there’s a God of Spring. He’s not as popular; guys always get credit for war while the women are getting credit for making flowers and fuzzy little animals. That’s just how it goes.
Almost no one knows there’s a God of Lettuce.
Technically, the God of Lactuca. Which just means all of the lettuces. There are hundreds of kinds.
But there aren’t any shrines for lettuce. Even when people knew, and really that was just a handful of farmers, they didn’t build shrines. They didn’t even do sacrifices. Lactuca was just supposed to keep plugging away with no acknowledgment, making things grow, putting his will on the seeds. Spring would never let people get away with that. If she didn’t at least have some girls in home-sewn robes doing fertility dances under a full moon, she wasn’t letting a flower bloom or a foal drop. But she’d always needed to be the center of attention.
Even on the sofa in Lactuca’s living room. She was glowing. They weren’t supposed to glow on the mortal plane. Not literarily anyway. “You have to go back,” she was saying, looking like she would melt the microfiber with the shine coming off of her whiter than white skin.
Lactuca did his best not to roll his eyes. In her presence his hair was going green again. Green and unruly and he could feel his skin getting slick and tougher. Total self-awareness was almost as bad as the literal nature of The Mother. Spring glowed brighter than most and had all the colors and scents of her season. He got romaine looking hair, leafy skin and a glow that was more like a yellow pallor. “I haven’t even been gone two months. It’s not like you’ve never traveled to the mortal realm.” His voice was defensive when he wanted it to be strong, but he had been a resentful younger brother for a long time.
“I never did it in the growing season,” she shot back, her voice capable of a bite of frost now and again. She flipped her long pink hair over her shoulder in a practiced but still regal gesture of impatience.
Lactuca felt his back teeth set together in anger. “You did. You came down here for about ten years that one time,” he reminded her, crossing his arms over his chest and refusing to look at how green they’d gotten.
She blinked at him with her impossibly large doe eyes and then waved his comment away. “I never forgot my duties. I still gave my season my attention at the right time,” she told him airily.
He bit his lip and forced himself not to mention the famine that hit the first of those ten years. He wanted her to leave and that would just make her stay and argue for hours. “Fine, you never let your attention slip. I can still do all of my growing from here. I’m not ready to go back yet,” he said, knowing he was fully within his rights. They weren’t required to live on the mountain. That was just where The Mother preferred them to be.
Spring took a deep breath that made her swell several sizes larger.
He watched her anxiously, sure that if she stood she’d take half of the ceiling out.
“If you work your will now. Bless the seeds that are sown. Bless the farmers that sow them,” she said in the booming tone of thunder that was also part of her nature.
Lactuca nodded, exerting a little of the will right then to keep the neighbors from hearing her. “I’ll do it. Give me a couple of days and there will be shoots everywhere.”
Her eyes narrowed slightly but she let herself shrink to more mortal proportions. “Good. I’ll tell The Mother.” She stood, looking down imperiously at him, her robes swishing around her ankles in the breeze she carried with her. “Is there anything else you want me to tell her?” Her eyebrows went up expectantly.
He bit back the first thing that came to mind and said what he was supposed to say. “Tell her, no, I didn’t forget. I’ll be home for Creation Day.” It was the biggest celebration of the year and everyone was expected. It was go, or feel the wrath of The Father. The idea made a little chill skitter down Lactuca’s spine.
Spring nodded and vanished in a hail of flower petals. Those didn’t disappear. They sat on every surface in the living room like a florist’s shop had exploded in front of the sofa.
Lactuca got up and beat the flowers out of his clothes. He kicked at a few blossoms on the floor and went into the kitchen. He saw his wild green reflection in the door of the microwave and forced himself to calm down. It required a certain amount of control to appear mortal. Or a lot of deep breaths and pushing his seething resentment down into a little ball in his stomach. When his hair was brown again he picked up the phone and dialed from memory.
The line picked up on the third ring. “Tuca, we’re already at The Bear. Where are you, man?” Lactuca heard over a rush of background noise.
He frowned briefly. He had forgotten they’d already made plans. “I’m heading out now, order me a scotch and soda.”
“Going to try and give Sol a run for his money tonight? This should be good.” The background noise ceased, the connection gone before he could reply.
Lactuca put the phone back in the cradle and rummaged around for his wallet and keys. They were in the pocket of his jacket. He slipped on the cool leather and felt for his lighter. It was in its place, making a familiar lump against his chest.
He blinked and his kitchen was replaced with the men’s room at The Bear. He stepped out of the empty stall, scraping a limp lettuce leaf off of the bottom of his boot. Knowing that he hadn’t been calm enough to travel without leaving a pile of leaves in his kitchen just made him angrier. His hands were balled into fists in his pockets as he navigated to the back of the bar.
Sol and Spin were at their usual table, deep in a game of dominos. Neither of them looked up when Lactuca threw himself into a chair and gulped half of his waiting drink. He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at them. “Who’s winning?”
Sol held up one long finger, his red hair falling into his eyes as he bent over the pieces that were already in play.
Spin kept his bright green eyes on Sol like he expected to somehow predict his next move.
Lactuca sniffed and downed the rest of his drink, feeling warmer but not any calmer.
Sol finally picked up a domino and placed it with exaggerated care. Only then did he turn his head, his long face propped on his hand. “What has your shorts in a knot?” he asked casually.
“I got a little visit from my sister,” Lactuca said darkly, signaling the waitress to bring him another drink.
“Oh, is that why you smell like flowers?” Spin asked, triumphantly slapping down his next domino.
Lactuca sniffed self-consciously and realized that he did smell like flowers. “Damn,” he muttered to himself. “She had the gall to come and tell me that I was putting the crops behind. It’s not like plants are on a set schedule.” He wasn’t quite prepared to tell them that he’d completely forgotten about the crops. He didn’t need a lecture from Sol.
Sol was looking at the dominos again. “You would think, that as Spring, she could just put some of her will to it and there would be lettuce everywhere.”
Lactuca opened his mouth to reply, but paused as the waitress came over with his drink. “Thanks,” he said, moving aside to let her set the glass on the table.
She took a deep breath that was suspiciously like a sniff and when she stood, she winked at him.
Lactuca smiled slightly, smelling like flowers wasn’t all bad. “Anyway, Sol’s right. Why can’t she just make them grow by herself?”
Spin shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean that time I missed a crop with my blessing there was an E. coli outbreak. It should have been Pestilence’s deal but it was all on me. The Father really laid into me for that.”
Lactuca leaned forward on the table, more to think than to watch the game. “But if Spring messes up there’s a famine. Nothing grows, not my crops and not yours. Did you ever forget your crop completely, Spin?”
Spin gave him a look that was between indignant and horrified. “Are you kidding? After all those people got sick? After I got a talk from Old Bones? I blessed every damn plant last month.”
Sol was watching Lactuca again with his serious red eyes. “You think a bungled spinach crop is bad? When Oryza got involved with one of the Zephyrs he either forgot or didn’t care about his crop. Hundreds of thousands died in that famine.”
Spin whistled. “Damn. I forgot all about that. I wonder what The Father said to him.”
Lactuca waved that off. “Wait, so Ory doesn’t will the rice for a season and the whole crops just winks out of existence? Spring should’ve been able to bless them, shouldn’t she?”
Sol shrugged his thin shoulders. “So she can’t. You can do something she can’t. Is that going to be enough to get you out of this foul mood?”
Lactuca shook his head, it was like a light had gone on in his brain and he was seeing thousands of hidden things at once. “That’s not what I’m getting at. I’m saying,” he paused, not sure what he wanted to tell them, “well I’m saying, when was the last time we had a spinach festival? Or a shrine to appease the God of Solanum and ensure a good tomato crop? When’s the last time anyone prayed to us for a good growing season or a good harvest?”
Spin shrugged this time. “I don’t think people think about spinach that way,” he said somewhat modestly.
“I bet they would if they didn’t have it anymore,” Lactuca said, unaware that his eyes had gone greener than Spin’s and were glowing slightly.
Sol frowned, keeping his voice low. “You’re not seriously suggesting that we ignore the crops? Mortals will just blame it on some blight and The Father will punish us.”
Lactuca shrugged casually but his expression was fierce. “I’m saying that we deserve a little recognition and we’re not going to get it going along with everything Spring and The Mother tell us to do. Do you think that we’re going to start getting mentioned at the Creation Day feast if we keep on like this? Have we ever been mentioned before? Even when we had shrines and some worshippers it was always The Mother saying, ‘Oh thank you to Spring for bringing forth the fruits of the earth’, ‘Summer, you’ve done a wonderful job ripening the fruits of Spring’. And then The Father going on about how Autumn prepared the earth for the rejuvenation of Winter and how Winter culled out the weak and left the strong to start a new year. Did anyone ever say, ‘Hey crops, thanks for feeding everyone this year’?”
Spin looked uncomfortable and was twirling his beer bottle between his hands. “Well, no, but everyone knows we’re a part of it.”
“Even if, and this is completely hypothetical, but say the three of us decided not to use our will this season. Well it’s not exactly causing a famine. The world will just get by without salads and ketchup for a year. Even my potatoes aren’t as crucial as they once were,” Sol said, sounding interested even as he poked holes in Lactuca’s plan.
In his focus to prove his point, Lactuca wasn’t in complete control of himself, he wasn’t going green, but he was growing in his seat. “Do you really think that we’re the only crops that feel this way? The only ones who think that Spring and Summer should get all the credit for food are Spring and Summer.”
“And The Mother and The Father.” Spin said in a small voice as though he expected them to burst into the room at any moment.
Sol nodded. “He’s right you know. You’d be talking a complete overthrow of their wishes and traditions. You’d be talking about a revolution,” he said slowly as though he was tasting the words as he said them.
Spin’s jaw dropped and Lactuca shrank in his seat. “No,” Lactuca said, looking pale and spreading his hands. “I don’t want to overthrow The Mother or The Father. I just want a little recognition. A parade, a temple, a few guys who still realize someone has to bless all of those plants.”
“But what you’re saying is still revolution,” Sol pressed, his eyes glittering strangely.
Lactuca shook his head again. “No, it’s more like,” he paused, looking for the right word, “a strike. That’s what it would be.”
“A strike?” Sol said, looking skeptical over his steepled fingers.
Lactuca nodded quickly. “We’ll refuse to work our wills until our demands are met. They can’t force us to work our blessings, so we’ll just hold out until they cave in.”
Spin cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I could do that. You didn’t see The Father after the E. coli outbreak.”
Sol reached out and patted Spin’s shoulder. “You don’t have to. It might be better to have you as an advocate when the others question our motives,” he said, watching Lactuca, not seeing how Spin paled and swallowed hard at his suggestion. “Now I have potatoes, which are pretty low on the chain of staples, but would still have some impact. Tomatoes are a little frivolous but people like them. The rest aren’t really worth mentioning except for the ones the butterflies and moths feed on. The following year’s pollination could be affected without them. I’m not sure if adding your lettuce to that is enough to get their attention unless we get someone bigger, like Trit and his wheat.”
Lactuca frowned and ran his finger around the lip of his glass. “I have some pull with pollination too. A lot of those butterflies and moths feed on my plants.”
“Um, guys?” Spin started, quieting when Sol held a hand up to silence him.
Sol rubbed his mouth thoughtfully. “We’ll have to talk to some of the others. Is there anyone else you can think of that would be likely? We can’t have anyone running off to Old Bones about this.”
Lactuca shrugged away from the grip Spin suddenly had on his arm. “We’d have to approach them carefully but I think I can speak for Brassica and Daucus. They could probably point us to others.”
Sol nodded, frowning slightly. “Cabbages and carrots. I guess that’s a start. I still think we should approach-”
The sudden blackness and silence in the room made Sol stop mid-sentence.
Everything stayed silent and dark for a moment and then a flare of glowing light lit the end of their table. The blue light revealed part of the bar, the waitresses and patrons stopped in mid-motion, frozen in place. But the three crop Gods weren’t looking at the mortals. Their eyes were on the blue skeleton towering over their table with his bony hands flat on the wood. The skeleton leaned in, fixing each of them with a glare from his glowing eye sockets. He ended on Lactuca and spoke without looking away from him. “Solanum, Spinacea, leave us.”
Sol and Spin didn’t pause; they just disappeared like they’d never been there.
The skeleton slid gracefully into Spin’s seat, shrinking to a mortal size without really looking smaller and folding his hands on the tabletop. “You’re going to have a strike?”
Lactuca swallowed hard and sat straight in his chair. “No, Father.”
There was a sound like hail hitting a window, The Father’s laugh. “Life says that you were. She says that in one year there will be famine and suffering and death. She has the future, so surely these things will happen.”
Lactuca flinched when The Father called The Mother ‘Life’. The Father was the only one who called her that and it was always with a note of irony. He was Death and she was Life and she was always revered where he was feared. The Ocean had told Lactuca that once and it had always made the crop God feel closer to The Father. Neither of them got any credit for the good they did. “I only wanted,” he faltered slightly under the unblinking gaze of the skeleton, “I wanted recognition. Spring needs me but she treats me like I don’t matter.” There was a whine in his tone and he snapped his mouth shut before it could get any worse.
The Father sat back in the seat and drummed his fingers on the table. “The mortals sow your crops and eat the bounty. You feed the humans and the insects that let new plants grow. You are important. What more do you need?” The Father asked with a sweeping gesture of one bony hand that clearly indicated that Lactuca was being offered a whole world.
“I- I mean, we, most of the crop plants, we don’t get any mortal recognition. Without us Spring and Summer and even Autumn would have nothing to show for their seasons and they’re the ones with festivals and feasts and temples.” Lactuca bit back on the urge to say that The Father and The Mother didn’t recognize them for their work either. There was a line between explaining himself and screwing himself.
There was a long silence that Lactuca didn’t dare break. The Father stared at him and he could feel sweat beading on his brow and dripping down his back between his shoulder blades. Still he said nothing.
With a rattling sigh The Father spoke. His voice was cool and calm but not unfeeling. “You feel unappreciated. Yet you are full of purpose, doing exactly what you were created to do. You will the crop and you bless it.”
“It’s not enough.” The words were out of Lactuca’s mouth before he could think them through. There had been a finality to what The Father said that wasn’t meant to be challenged.
The Father stood, his gleaming blue ribcage at eye level, his long boned hands curling into fists. His tone was hard and flat, unforgiving. “If you do not appreciate this gift of Life, then I can remove it for you.” One of The Father’s hands uncurled to reveal a tall green flame.
Lactuca’s eyes went wide, seeing his life-force in The Father’s hand. “No, I appreciate it. I really do. I-”
The Father brought his other hand to the top of the flame and began to close the distance between them, making the flame shrink as they came closer together. “You were created for a purpose and you can be extinguished for not fulfilling it.”
Lactuca threw himself flat on the table before him, prostrate in front of The Father. “I will fulfill my purpose! I will go, now, and will the seeds, bless them all!”
He didn’t dare look up and flinched when The Father’s voice boomed above him. “You will be punished on Creation Day when the Council meets.”
As soon as the words faded from the air the room lit up again, the patrons and the waitresses moving and talking in a roar that rushed over Lactuca. He slid back into his seat and wiped his forehead with his sleeve. He was breathing hard and lifted his drink to his mouth with a shaking hand. Something didn’t feel right and it was something past the bone deep fear of seeing his flame like that. He was going to cause famine and death. The Mother had seen it. She held the future, she could do that.
“But she never does that,” he said aloud, shaking his head hard. The only time The Mother had ever used the future to change something had been during The Great War. A famine was serious but not Life and Death battling for the power over the world.
Which meant that The Mother hadn’t told Old Bones anything.
Spring had left his apartment and run to The Father.
“I’m going to have to do something about that,” Lactuca said grimly, standing with his fists balled and his eyes glowing. The next second he was gone in a hail of green leaves.