The Playthings

The Playthings
by KAROL LAGODZKI

THE PLAYTHINGS, an upmarket adult blend of fantasy, myth and alternative history, is complete at 83,000 words. It’s a stand-alone book with series potential. Readers familiar with CAIN by José Saramago and AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman will find it exploring related themes.

In 2,500 BCE, Jesophot grows up in Sodom. All he wants is to buy a new goat. Instead, he receives the curse of divine revelation: a story intended to found the Abrahamic faith. In 1995, to exploit her human free will, the devil tricks Ana, a young woman from Chicago, into becoming a demon. Once Jesophot records his vision inside five sturdy leather belts to disguise and protect it, Ana—for whom time matters little—replaces it with the devil’s version. Now, Jesophot faces the choice of doing nothing and allowing all of history to be corrupted, or working to recover the true testament at a lethal risk to his family. Ana’s choice is more personal. She can continue to be a pawn at the devil’s hands or rebel and face a distinct possibility of annihilation. What Ana and Jesophot choose to do will set the course of history. The reader must in the end decide whether our world has been shaped by the divine or by the other side.

The novel needs a loving home and is currently in search of an agent. I hope you enjoy a short excerpt.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Sun Over Sodom. Circa 2,500 BCE

 

Fifteen years old, and a distant relative of the king, Jesophot worked for a living. He spent his nights and early mornings—when his luck was in—cleaning bodily fluids and washing the linens and the whores’ clothes at King Bera’s palace. He made sure to use the days to rest. Jesophot stood tall enough that one might take him for a grown man until the boy moved and his gangly limbs flailed with their own designs as he shuffled around after his tasks. Where his awkward body appeared to conspire against him, his face carried a promise of many sighs and broken hearts should he live long enough to grow into it. In Bera’s palace, filled with beautiful youth, he didn’t look out of place.

At this moment, though, Jesophot’s face glowed red as he hurtled through the king’s common room.

“Get in there, and quit staring at the walls like an idiot!” Balok, the palace chamberlain, growled, still waving the stick he had just used to smack the boy over the head.

“Sir!” Jesophot skittered away at speed.

And on he went, doing his best to navigate the crowded floor. Mostly nude bodies, thrusting, caressing and moaning, packed the room like eels at the bottom of a jar.

He trampled over a limb and heard a crunch. “Gods, sorry,” he said to the boy imported all the way from Ur. “Excuse me,” that was to the new girl bought from Gomorrah. He released his breath once certain he hadn’t stepped on any of Bera’s guests. Breaking a slave’s hand was one thing. Kicking one of the king’s companions would have brought trouble.

He knocked on the door to Bera’s inner chamber. Once it opened, Jesophot’s stomach flipped when he saw that this wasn’t going to be one of the lucky days.

Sunrise had begun to threaten by the time he finished pulling the limp bodies of young boys and fresh girls out of the palace and onto the cart sitting outside. Cleaning the blood, excrement and body parts came next. Not a lucky day. He hated it; he hated the palace, he hated Bera and he hated Sodom. He wished the earth would open and swallow it.

The cleanup and the loading complete, Jesophot drove the cart into the hills and began his labor anew. He pulled one body after another and dragged each through the shrubs and into a clearing.

A girl with short, curly black hair. Her blue eyes—foreign, arresting—had frozen in surprise. A beauty mark the color of bread stood out on her pale cheek. Her nails were smooth and healthy, and her feet were clean.

Another girl. Not tall, but ripe and soft, and with full, pale lips set in a pout begging for a kiss. A gap splitting her left eyelid, where the knife blade had plunged, interrupted her beauty.

A boy’s body seemingly untouched except for a trace of dry blood from a red spot the size of a seed set over his heart.

There were five. Jesophot towed the former playthings by their feet to rest among dry, old meat and bones. Then he turned around and went back. He would rest and hopefully sleep. Later he would walk and run in the heat until he fainted from exhaustion.

* * *

Jesophot approached his house. He stopped by a small, charcoal-colored shape on the ground and crouched. He touched the bristles of the fur and stroked the neck. The goat stirred and opened her eyes. She blinked and studied him with her pupils—bars cutting across the golden background like twigs fallen into wax. So unlike Midor’s.

Jesophot’s breath paused. Something had wedged itself in his chest. He swallowed. Inhaled. He petted the goat, and that helped, but the weight between his ribs had now formed an edge. Sharp. It cut.

A tear landed on the pelt.

He lifted the animal and carried her inside. She curled up on Jesophot’s pallet, and he curled up around her. Her musk and warmth greased his lungs and allowed the air in. Out. In. Sharp. He buried his face in the goat’s neck. The fur wicked the drops from his eyes.

Jesophot woke in the afternoon. The sounds, and the sun on his face, felt like home. Clinking and clanging of dishes and vessels, yells and muted animal cries outside, the bells softly tolling on the breeze above the altar to the great baals, the grind of his mother’s pestle as she prepared the evening meal—all seemed right with the world. Jesophot sat up, rose to his feet and walked outside to wash his face.

“‘Phot, duck!” someone yelled.

He began to look up. The last thing he saw was something dark obstructing the sunshine, and he thought he might have registered a musky, sour smell.

Jesophot awoke the following afternoon. His mother, Had’r, sat on the blankets next to him. She touched his face on the side that wasn’t purple and swollen. The wrinkles in the corners of her eyes became a little deeper and she blinked a couple of times.

“What happened?” Jesophot asked, rolling to the side and propping himself up on an elbow.

“The goat,” Had’r answered and continued to stare.

Jesophot had gotten used to his mother’s oddities over the years and managed to push a swell of irritation away. “What about the goat?”

“The goat died. She was on the roof, and then…just died. Where she stood. And then she fell.” Had’r’s sharp chin continued to quake as if reminding its owner there was something more to say. “She was a good goat,” she finished.

“A good goat,” Jesophot agreed, slowly. He fell back.

Had’r blinked.

“We’ll need a new one,” Jesophot said. “I’ll go and see Rasumaleh at the palace.”

“Wait until your brothers come back. Baals willing, they will have gathered more tar this time.”

Jesophot tried to sit up on the edge of the blankets but then let his head fall back down. He had managed to lounge on his side, but sitting proved a step too far. A wave of nausea broke through in deep heaves. He hadn’t eaten, so little damage was done.

Had’r wiped his lips with a back of her hand.

“Stay in your blankets,” she said and made her lips look thinner than they had already been; Jesophot had learned to interpret that as a smile. “Balok came—”

“What will we do?” Jesophot’s queasiness got worse. Balok was an open, exuberant expression of the nastiness Bera usually kept bottled inside him.

“Oh. He saw you. He stopped yelling. He wants you back in the palace. In a couple of days.” She said, patted his head and walked out.

Jesophot struggled to order his thoughts and finally gave up. His head ached, but his mind echoed like a yell into an empty water jar.

Sleep soon returned.

He woke at sunrise to the sensation of a foot in his gut.

“Hey, ‘Phot!” his brother Baruz greeted him.

His eldest brother, Nagir, stood next to Baruz.

“We heard you picked a fight with a goat. A dead one,” Nagir said.

“And you lost,” Baruz commented.

“So the wagons came,” Jesophot stated the obvious.

“You look like a goat’s shit,” Baruz drawled. Swaying from the balls of his feet to his heels and back, he seemed in a jubilant mood.

“They sure did,” Nagir said, “and with them came your rich brothers.” Even he was nursing a slow smile.

“Come on, Nagir, tell him! Tell him what we did while he was playing with Bera’s whores and head-butting dead goats.”

“We got more tar than anyone has ever seen. Twice as much. Maybe more than that…I don’t know. It’s a miracle. Let’s just hope the Egyptians bring enough copper to get it all. I’ll make sure we have a stall close to Bera’s auction table.” Nagir said this without changing his expression. He blinked no more than once.

Had’r shuffled into the house. “Jesophot, up. Greet your brothers. Fetch water.”

He obeyed. After a couple of affectionate punches in the stomach, Jesophot stumbled out, now balancing a large pot on his shoulder. The left half of his face still felt tender and swollen, and he made sure to carry the vessel on the right. As he walked, he thought about going back to the palace, and if Balok would still be mad. He thought about the stroke of good fortune and all the tar in the bogs, as if to spare him having to beg Rasumaleh and barter his remaining freedom for the right to a goat.

Jesophot thought about goats. Especially, about the recently deceased old goat. Mother was right—she had been a good goat. Every time the palace bred her, and then kept the kids, her udders stayed full for close to a year. Jesophot had been little more than a babe when they’d gotten her, and she still gave more milk than any of the neighbors’ goats up until yesterday when she fell on his head from the roof.

He tried to picture Midor, his sister. He thought he recalled something of her: a glimpse, a scent, a touch. Her eyes. She must have been about the same age he was now when he had last seen her, and he hadn’t yet learned to walk. Bera had her sent off to King Birsha—a gift, and one of Bera’s goats, the good old goat, came their way in exchange. He felt a twinge of remorse that he hadn’t retained any memory of his other sisters.

The clay pot on his shoulder lurched when Jesophot stubbed his toe on a rock. He cursed and hoped none of the baals heard, that they were too busy to pay any attention. Sizable rocks littered the path like loaves of bread made by a god with a wry sense of humor. The trees around, heavy with figs, tempted, but few souls forgot more than once that all fig trees belonged to the palace. Lowering his eyes, Jesophot saw a fluttering in the shrubs and spotted a rat. Had he not been facing the prospect of carrying a fragile pot heavy with water back to the house, he would have been tempted to try his luck with a stone. Meat in the gruel always made everyone smile a bit more.

The well presided over a crossing of several paths, and women were flowing in with empty pots and leaving with vessels full of fresh water in undulating waves of strong hips, backs locked straight and eyes searching for something over the horizon from above the grimaces on their lips. Jesophot had no desire to speak with any of them. A boy without a sister whose mother made him carry water from the well like a girl? They pretended to smile, some even winked, but Jesophot knew better and cringed.

He resolved to mind his own business and go about his task as quickly as possible. He drew the bucket up and began to tip it into his vessel. From a corner of his eye, he spotted a movement and in a blink realized he had either placed the pot on a rock or bumped it—either way, it was going to fall and most likely break. He tensed, about to drop the water bucket and lunge to save the precious pot, when a pair of hands appeared and steadied the clay vessel. Jesophot caught himself, finished pouring, put the bucket down and resumed breathing.

He looked up. The girl let go of the pot, her eyes meeting his. It would have been a stretch to call her pretty, but her eyes were kind and reminded Jesophot of someone. She nodded to him, turned, heaved her own pot onto her head and walked away with a sway of the hips.

* * *

Had’r rested on a rock in front of her house. Her legs lay splayed out around her in a show of bone and sinew. She watched the approaching figure of Jesophot, and she wondered, at the age of forty-eight, how much longer she had to live with her regrets.

It had rained all day in the town of Sodom on the day Had’r’s first daughter was born. Water came from the sky in rapid, noisy cords and washed away swaths of soil down the long hill. The sky wept and the earth melted as Had’r screamed and heaved the life into the world. She named the child Midor.

Two more years and two more daughters. Years later, her fourth child, a boy, brought joy to his father, and two more followed. Lot loved his long-awaited sons. Far from a rich man, he found ways to buy the older two apprenticeships to learn a trade as soon as they’d been born. Things had grown tighter by the time the third boy came.

The spouts of rain on the day Lot came home with gold and a milk goat had wedged into her memory.

“No other way, Had’r, there was no other way,” he said, his eyes red with the memory of recently shed tears. “Now we can pay our debts and our son can live.”

Then he told his wife the price he had paid: three female children.

Later that night, Had’r washed her hands of blood and brain. She continued to scrub long after the last remnants of Lot were gone. The blood on her hands was now her own. How she wished she hadn’t complained.

She wished she hadn’t gone back after having fled with the children when Lot put up an altar to a new, strange baal. She should have done something after he began to rave about Jesophot’s destiny. If Had’r could speak to the girl she had been then, she would have…

But that was not the time to take the blame, to break down. She began to make her way home from the shore.

Her remaining three children were asleep when she returned. Baruz and Nagir lay puffing, cuddled together like kittens. Jesophot, still a babe, had sunk into the nest she’d made for him from the wool she’d stolen from Bera’s sheep and sewn inside his father’s old tunic.

Her youngest son’s eyes opened soon after she’d knelt by him. She reached out and touched his forehead. Peace enveloped her as if she’d been lifted out of her body and become a breath of a great baal. Forgiveness. Had’r withdrew her hand, her eyebrows dripping sweat. She kissed her boy.

Now, so much later, as Had’r smiled at Jesophot who approached at one lurch at a time, bent under the water vessel, she wondered where her boy’s magic had gone. The first and last time she felt it was the night after she bashed Lot’s head in with a stone.

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And that is the end of the first chapter. Stay tuned for the rest…