AMERICAN GODS The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.
People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.
The mountaintop was an arena; he saw that immediately. And on each side of the arena he could see them arrayed.
They were too big. Everything was too big in that place.
There were old gods in that place: gods with skins the brown of old mushrooms, the pink of chicken flesh, the yellow of autumn leaves. Some were crazy and some were sane. Shadow recognized the old gods. He’d met them already, or he’d met others like them. There were ifrits and piskies, giants and dwarfs. He saw the woman he had met in the darkened bedroom in Rhode Island, saw the writhing green snake-coils of her hair. He saw Mama-ji, from the carousel, and there was blood on her hands and a smile on her face. He knew them all.
He recognized the new ones, too.
Neil Gaiman is the winner of numerous literary honors and is the New York Times bestselling author of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, American Gods, Neverwhere, Stardust and Anansi Boys; the Sandman series of graphic novels; three short story collections and one book of essays, The View From the Cheap Seats.
Neil is the first author to win both the Carnegie Medal and the Newbery Medal for one work, The Graveyard Book. He also writes books for readers of all ages including the novels Fortunately, the Milk and Odd and the Frost Giants and picture books including The Sleeper and the Spindle and the Chu’s Day series. Neil’s most recent publication, Norse Mythology has topped bestseller lists worldwide.
Originally from England, he now lives in the USA. He is listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography as one of the top ten living post-modern writers, and he says he owes it all to reading the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as a young man.
This series based on Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, SFX Magazine and Bram Stoker Awards for Best Novel, and now a Starz television series.
Back in prison, Low Key Lyesmith had once referred to the little prison cemetery out behind the infirmary as the Bone Orchard, and the image had taken root in Shadow’s mind. That night he had dreamed of an orchard under the moonlight, of skeletal white trees, their branches ending in bony hands, their roots going deep down into the graves. There was fruit that grew upon the trees in the bone orchard, in his dream, and there was something very disturbing about the fruit in the dream, but on waking he could no longer remember what strange fruit grew on the trees, nor why he found it so repellent.
Clacking white sandalwood bones, grave soil, and the bruise-purple fruits of death and decay.
It was getting late. He was hungry, and when he realized how hungry he really was, he pulled off at the next exit and drove into the town of Nottamun (pop. 1301). He filled the gas tank at the Amoco and asked the bored woman at the cash register where he could get something to eat.
“Jack’s Crocodile Bar,” she told him. “It’s west on County Road N.”
“Yeah. Jack says they add character.” She drew him a map on the back of a mauve flyer, which advertised a chicken roast for the benefit of a young girl who needed a new kidney. “He’s got a couple of crocodiles, a snake, one a them big lizard things.”
Through the town, over a bridge, on for a couple of miles, and he stopped at a low, rectangular building with an illuminated Pabst sign.
The parking lot was half empty. Inside the air was thick with smoke and “Walking After Midnight” was playing on the jukebox. Shadow looked around for the crocodiles, but could not see them. He wondered if the woman in the gas station had been pulling his leg.
Cedar shavings, a swirl of booze, a flattened French fry, and barbeque sauce.
Ibis and Jacquel was a small, family-owned funeral home: one of the last truly independent funeral homes in the area, or so Mr. Ibis maintained. “Most fields of human merchandising value nationwide brand identities,” he said. Mr. Ibis spoke in explanations: a gentle, earnest lecturing that put Shadow in mind of a college professor who used to work out at the Muscle Farm and who could not talk, could only discourse, expound, explain. Shadow had figured out within the first few minutes of meeting Mr. Ibis that his expected part in any conversation with the funeral director was to say as little as possible. “This, I believe, is because people like to know what they are getting ahead of time. Thus, McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, F. W. Woolworth (of blessed memory): store brands maintained and visible across the entire country. Wherever you go, you will get something that is, with small regional variations, the same.
“In the field of funeral homes, however, things are, perforce, different. You need to feel that you are getting small-town personal service from someone who has a calling to the profession. You want personal attention to you and your loved one in a time of great loss. You wish to know that your grief is happening on a local level, not on a national one. But in all branches of industry—and death is an industry, my young friend, make no mistake about that—one makes ones money from operating in bulk, from buying in quantity, from centralizing one’s operations. It’s not pretty, but it’s true. Trouble is, no one wants to know that their loved ones are traveling in a cooler-van to some big old converted warehouse where they may have twenty, fifty, a hundred cadavers on the go. No, sir. Folks want to think they’re going to a family concern, somewhere they’ll be treated with respect by someone who’ll tip his hat to them if he sees them in the street.”
Mr. Ibis wore a hat. It was a sober brown hat that matched his sober brown blazer and his sober brown face. Small gold-rimmed glasses perched on his nose. In Shadow’s memory Mr. Ibis was a short man; whenever he would stand beside him, Shadow would rediscover that Mr. Ibis was well over six feet in height, with a cranelike stoop. Sitting opposite him now, across the shiny red table, Shadow found himself staring into the man’s face.
“So when the big companies come in they buy the name of the company, they pay the funeral directors to stay on, they create the apparency of diversity. But that is merely the tip of the gravestone. In reality, they are as local as Burger King. Now, for our own reasons, we are truly an independent. We do all our own embalming, and it’s the finest embalming in the country, although nobody knows it but us. We don’t do cremations, though. We could make more money if we had our own crematorium, but it goes against what we’re good at. What my business partner says is, if the Lord gives you a talent or a skill, you have an obligation to use it as best you can. Don’t you agree?”
“Sounds good to me,” said Shadow.
“The Lord gave my business partner dominion over the dead, just as he gave me skill with words. Fine things, words. I write books of tales, you know. Nothing literary. Just for my own amusement. Accounts of lives.” He paused. By the time Shadow realized that he should have asked if he might be allowed to read one, the moment had passed. “Anyway, what we give them here is continuity: there’s been an Ibis and Jacquel in business here for almost two hundred years. We weren’t always funeral directors, though. We used to be morticians, and before that, undertakers.”
“And before that?”
“Well,” said Mr. Ibis, smiling just a little smugly, “we go back a very long way…”
Egyptian embalming compound: beeswax and fir resin, myrrh, natron salt, cassia, palm wine, lichen, henna, and camphor.
“There was a reason he hid me in Lakeside, wasn’t there? There was a reason nobody should have been able to find me here.”
Hinzelmann said nothing. He unhooked a heavy black poker from its place on the wall, and he prodded at the fire with it, sending up a cloud of orange sparks and smoke. “This is my home,” he said, petulantly. “It’s a good town.”
Perfect wholesomeness: green grass, summer daisies, spring daffodils, and bake sale cookies bought with blood and terror, all frozen beneath a sheet of thick black ice.
Florida went on for longer than Shadow had imagined, and it was late by the time he pulled up outside a small, one-story wooden house, its windows tightly shuttered, on the outskirts of Fort Pierce. Nancy, who had directed him through the last five miles, invited him to stay the night.
“I can get a room in a motel,” said Shadow. “It’s not a problem.”
“You could do that, and I’d be hurt. Obviously I wouldn’t say anythin’. But I’d be real hurt, real bad,” said Mr. Nancy. “So you better stay here, and I’ll make you a bed up on the couch.”
Mr. Nancy unlocked the hurricane shutters, and pulled open the windows. The house smelled musty and damp, and little sweet, as if it were haunted by the ghosts of long-dead cookies.
The ghosts of long-dead cookies, whirring palmetto bugs, cigarillo smoke, and crawling things that scuttle and click.
He was walking through a room bigger than a city, and everywhere he looked there were statues and carvings and rough-hewn images. He was standing beside a statue of a womanlike thing: her naked breasts hung flat and pendulous on her chest, around her waist was a chain of severed hands, both of her own hands held sharp knives, and, instead of a head, rising from her neck there were twin serpents, their bodies arched, facing each other, ready to attack. There was something profoundly disturbing about the statue, a deep and violent wrongness. Shadow backed away from it.
He began to walk through the hall. The carved eyes of those statues that had eyes seemed to follow his every step.
In his dream, he realized that each statue had a name burning on the floor in front of it. The man with the white hair, with a necklace of teeth about his neck, holding a drum, was Leucotios; the broad-hipped woman with monsters dropping from the vast gash between her legs was Hubur; the ram-headed man holding the golden ball was Hershef.
A precise voice, fussy and exact, was speaking to him, in his dream, but he could see no one.
“These are gods who have been forgotten, and now might as well be dead. They can be found only in dry histories. They are gone, all gone, but their names and their images remain with us.”
Shadow turned a corner, and knew himself to be in another room, even vaster than the first. It went on farther than the eye could see. Close to him was the skull of a mammoth, polished and brown, and a hairy ocher cloak, being worn by a small woman with a deformed left hand. Next to that were three women, each carved from the same granite boulder, joined at the waist: their faces had an unfinished, hasty look to them, although their breasts and genitalia had been carved with elaborate care; and there was a flightless bird which Shadow did not recognize, twice his height, with a beak like a vulture’s, but with human arms: and on, and on.
The voice spoke once more, as if it were addressing a class, saying, “These are the gods who have passed out of memory. Even their names are lost. The people who worshiped them are as forgotten as their gods. Their totems are long since broken and cast down. Their last priests died without passing on their secrets.
“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”
Ancient incense and charred sacrifices echoing through time.
“What we need,” said Wednesday, suddenly, “is snow. A good, driving, irritating snow. Think ‘snow’ for me, will you?”
“Concentrate on making those clouds—the ones over there, in the west—making them bigger and darker. Think gray skies and driving winds coming down from the arctic. Think snow.”
“I don’t think it will do any good.”
“Nonsense. If nothing else, it will keep your mind occupied,” said Wednesday, unlocking the car. “Kinko’s next. Hurry up.”
Snow, thought Shadow, in the passenger seat, sipping his hot chocolate. Huge, dizzying clumps and clusters of snow falling through the air, patches of white against an iron-gray sky, snow that touches your tongue with cold and winter, that kisses your face with its hesitant touch before freezing you to death. Twelve cotton-candy inches of snow, creating a fairy-tale world, making everything unrecognizably beautiful . . .
Snow, thought Shadow. High in the atmosphere, perfect, tiny crystals that form about a minute piece of dust, each a lacelike work of fractal art. And the snow crystals clump together into flakes as they fall, covering Chicago in their white plenty, inch upon inch . . .