DEAD GODS AND FALLEN KINGS

Neptune is the great god of the sea, overlord to all that is marine. Domineer of blue water, white surf, gray foam, and cold, black, fathomless depths, he commands the vast ocean network of a planet that is 70 percent his domain. From the inconspicuous tide pool barnacle that studs the salt-slick rocks, each wary crustacean that skitters over them, every wide-spread, five-pronged, suction-footed starfish that clings against the relentless undercurrent, to the open-water apex predator, row upon row of ghastly, savage smiles, sleek, streamline death machines, titans that cut the water, make a splash, make waves in the maritime scene, leviathans that dwarf any and all land creatures; these are the myriad subjects to a nautical monarch. These are the variant seafaring critters to a naval deity. To him, they heed. To him they pay their respects, fealty as deep as any ocean.

Neptune is the main attraction at Ocean World. His smiling face graces billboards across the county, promises of a good time that are only so-and-so miles away, your second exit on the right. With the sound of a whistle he leaves the aquamarine tank below him, he becomes airborne, an aerial torpedo. He bites the dangling fish, not the human hand that holds it, and falls back to his limited pool, the warm, sterile water, and splashes the front rows to a crowd of applauding great apes, parents with their children, locals bored of everything else, tourists passing by. Some call his kind a killer whale, but the stuffed toys in the gift shop would have you believe he is incapable of murder, inclined towards other things, proficient in leaps through hoops, subservient to hyperactive, happy-go-lucky, mic’d up entertainers. Besides, Neptune’s dinners, his treats and rewards, are dead upon arrival. Thawed out each morning, fresh from the freezer; no animals were injured in the making of this performance. Under the glaring brilliance of obtrusive security flood lights, under a rich spread of countless glimmering stars above, Neptune looks upward into a lonely sky that appears to him like dark, ocean water reflecting the moonlight. The empty bleachers are as quiet as the ocean floor. There is nothing to mask his piteous crying, the moaning of a subdued killer as his curved dorsal fin cuts the treated water.

Maharaja is an Indian king, a renowned Hindu monarch. He paces the well-manicured grounds of his towering palace, a pale, marble wraith rendered spectral in the silver moonlight. He walks in the depth of night, sleepless, entertaining many sage musings as he meanders dark avenues that weave along spectacular gardens. The weight of rule lies heavy on his conscience, taxing on his spirit, but is lightened by the cool evening air and aimless footsteps that thread the serpentine, stone pathways skirting ornate fountains carved in the likeness of one thousand gods. Above him, a tally of sheer brilliance illuminates the inky black; shooting stars, celestial rain. Maharaja salutes the cosmos stretching infinite overhead, the work of Brahma, the creator, paying adulation for the everything that is, the all-things spread out in a wide array of mesmerizing star-studded sky that outshines his ornate, jeweled sword. In this moment, a high king feels low, a grand lord, petty. In humiliation, a young ruler resolves to better himself, live for his kingdom, die for his people. A blood orange yolk splits over the keen edge of a far-off eastern horizon. Its warmth spills over a vast acreage of rice fields to bathe a pale palace pink and gold. Immersed in the long shadow cast by the infancy of a new morning, an Indian king kneels, looking resolute at the stark silhouette of his seat of power. On this brand new day, a maharaja is born anew.

Maharaja is an aging, arthritic Bengal tiger. His gums have long ailed him and his proud, predator teeth are but a memory of earlier days, a vigorous youth wasted behind bars. He walks in the daytime, paces, paves dirt roads with his boredom, his back-and-forth strides with dinner-plate paws that whittle away the weeds and grass, less so the hours of each long, tiresome afternoon. Faces goggle behind laminated glass, bipedal strangers wielding devices that glow, burying faces in their alien tool, smiling, aiming, flashing light, lost in wonder at a pixelated image of a tiger while the real thing watches them, despondent, bereft. Thawed meat is dropped, plopped, peppered with ravenous black flies, making modern art on a concrete slab that is the dining table of an apex predator. Boneless, or meticulously crushed, the flesh awaits Maharaja who manages his meal with much time but little dignity. Belly full with suspect corpses, low-grade meat, a geriatric beast plods across the sun-baked sand, reclines on a reclining Buddha, sprawling, majestic, across the sandalled feet of a giant tacky facade, the wood and plaster visage of a gold-painted, gaudy avatar.

Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor, hailed as one of the most esteemed leaders in human history. During his reign — and extending well after — centuries of civil wars subsided, regional conflict cooled, initiating a relatively peaceful era known as the Pax Romana — Roman Peace. Augustus was a busy man, not one to slouch in his seat of power. His empire did not build or improve itself through inaction, but rather, continued to grow, to thrive, through much effort, numerous and diverse implementations of expansion, improvement, refinement. To uphold tranquility, forge new prosperity, Augustus carried out religious reform, financial reform, reinvigorating traditional culture, spirited festivals, and brought stabilization to a widespread economy across far-reaching provinces and distant lands, adjacent continents. Extensive, well-built roads were laid into place. They spider-webbed across variant lands and through old borders, enhancing trade, travel, and the emperor’s reach. Aqueducts were built, rebuilt, and temples erected. To uphold and protect this new and shiny Rome, to preserve its reinstated, elevated grandeur, Vigiles Urbani (Watchmen of the City) were inducted, the first ever organized fire-fighting force, reinforced by the Cohortes Urbanae (urban cohorts), Rome’s first institutionalized police force. At the age of 75, rather than stabbed or strangled — as was the way of Roman emperors and high officials of the time — Augustus died of natural causes, a reflection, perhaps, of the political serenity his actions initiated, the pleasant Pax Romana.

Caesar Augustus is an emperor penguin living in southern California. While he was born in San Diego, indoors, amid an artificial environment with no sky, no seasons, no predators, he is aware, without basis for comparison, something is not quite right, that something is, in fact, overtly wrong, perverse, unnatural. Not unlike those who offer devotion to Allah in one of five daily prayers, facing whatever direction points them to Mecca, Augustus waddles his way into a far corner at various times throughout the day to align himself in the direction of some unknown, beckoning force beyond the overbearing walls that contain him. There, he stares, point blank, at a mural of white snow and black rock, ice-blue glacier and gray waves, large and angry and static in mid-dance. He does not know it, but like a compass, his beak points south. Always south. Something beyond the old photo mural — far, far beyond — lies what Augustus knows to be the essential energy lacking in his life of malaise and confusion. He is unaware of the concept of hemispheres, of earth, the world he lives in as a whole, a planetary body, a globe comprised of geological, geographical variation. He is not what you’d call a bird-brain, but he is, nevertheless, a bird. He has no way of knowing that his home is in fact a zoo, that he was born into and lives within the small segment of an entertainment enterprise for the amusement of hairless apes, bipedal, techno-dependent zombies. In his simulated environment, crowded among kings and emperors displaced from their Antarctic birthright, their ancestral territories, Augustus turns away once more to bury his sad visage, glazed over, vacant, in the dark corner of a mural that haunts him, hints at some vestigial inkling of who and what he is. Through instinct, not knowledge, an emperor faces southward. 

Shiva is the god of destruction, “The Destroyer.” His consort, Kali, the goddess of ultimate power, time, destruction and change. For all of their powers, they do little else but sleep, lie dormant, come down from cozy nooks in trees to strip bamboo and fervently devour — destroy, if you will — their cut coins of bananas and clusters of grapes, their sprinkling of cat pebbles offered to them by their captors. Red pandas are known for being one of the cutest animals on the planet. Their sweet faces and fuzzy coats destroy our hardened resolve, obliterate our stoic exteriors, mutilate our carefully guarded shells. In captivity, both god and beast go fat with inactivity. Omnipotent deities and adorable animals alike, each of them balloon, grow soft, get tired, get slow. Like some ultimate power, some ruinous force, the confined and limited spaces change the beings they contain in no time at all, make them sessile, dead and ornamental, the discarded playthings of higher lifeforms, gods and goddesses, mankind, destructive beings. Perhaps one day Shiva will waken, Kali will come out of her slumber. One day, maybe, when gods remember who they are, they’ll make everything better, destroy what others have built.

Zeus is the king of all gods, Jupiter, the almighty. From his lofty seat of power on Mount Olympus, high above the clouds, he perches, ornery, ready to unleash thunderbolts in an irksome rage at sons gone awry and wives gone wayward. His final word is harsh and exacting. His judgement, stern. His indomitable will, ironclad. This is Zeus, after all, not some fluffy fucking bunny. A child’s fluffy bunny drops within the boundary of a five-meter high, chain link fence. It falls with an audible squeak, the compression of an internal plastic bladder, to rest unceremoniously upon a mound of lion scat. A toddler cries out and a mother soothes, pacifies her child with sugar and promises of a visit to the gift shop. They’ve come all this way in rush-hour traffic to lose a beloved stuffed toy and scan enclosures devoid of the animals that informative plaques promise are present. All that kerfuffle and still no fucking lion. Later, zoo maps rain like thrown stones, a public execution, in protest to the great lion that does not leave his concealed cavern. Zeus, deep in the mountainous bowels of Olympus, fixes his golden, molten eyes on the guillotine that rises every few days, allowing him access to his feeding den, where he gorges, automatic, on old carcasses shipped frozen from around the globe. Tunnel vision will more or less blind him in this moment, as it always does, when he laps up, breathes in his ghastly meal. But one day Zeus will muster his powers which sometimes go forgotten. One day, Zeus will recall what it is like to grip a searing thunderbolt, let loose its anarchic blend of electrons and protons. He will let fly its violent cocktail of charged particles, smote all before him, from stuffed bunnies to discarded zoo maps to simpering children and their neurotic caretakers. One day, Zeus avows, as he watches a zookeeper come forth with his long-awaited meal, slabs of this and that from suspect sources, he will summon his old self, resurrect the king within, the innate powers of being a lion. An unbolted door, a hand or foot carelessly close, Zeus will cash in on human error. One day, Zeus vows, he will again become a god.

— James Callan grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand on a small farm with his wife, Rachel, and his little boy, Finn. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Beyond Queer Words, Millennial Pulp Magazine and elsewhere. His novel, A Transcendental Habit, is due for publication in 2023 with Queer Space, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.