“And what does Nietszche mean,” Professor Clarke asked, turning away from the blackboard a little too fast and spraying chalk dust over the front row, “when he says God is dead?”
Silence. Slowly, Will raised his hand. Professor Clarke frowned.
“Yes Mr Parry?”
“It means He’s dead.” Will said, “Just dead. He was mad before He died, I
think. An invalid, really.”
Will nodded “With a beard.”
There was a long silence
“Is there any chance, Mr Parry, that you are being metaphorical?”
Will smiled, but didn’t say anything. Professor Clarke struggled a little to smile back.
“Splendid. Would anyone care to interpret Mr Parry? And along the way shed some light on what our mad German friend Friedrich might have been going on about?”
Angie put up her hand.
“He meant that God was a thing invented by people, and that we’ve moved beyond our need for them,” she said.
“Who meant? Mr Parry or Mr Nietszche?”
“ Both I suppose” She said, generously awarding Will the benefit of the doubt.
“Put to mad uses, Professor.”
“And the beard?”
Will walked slowly across the damp grass of the quad. The sandstone grandeur of Christchurch was almost obliterated by the rain. The clouds were like slabs of slate. He’d worked and fought hard to get in here. The oldest and grandest college in Oxford -
“Jordan’s the biggest and richest college there is. En’t nothing close.”
-to be (somehow) closer to her.
Will made a half-fist. Feeling the blood pulse. He didn’t miss her all the time, not anymore. Like the severed fingers of his right hand, she was gone. But also like his fingers, he would sometimes experience pain where she used to be. It would be sudden. A sharp burst of sensation in empty space that made him gasp, and shake his head in confusion. Doing violence to his normal life.
It happened when he most needed her.
He took the bus from the stop outside the college into the city outskirts. When he arrived at the hospital, a familiar, worried, face was waiting for him.
She folded him up in a tight hug, her reddish brown hair tickling his face.
“Oh Will, I’m so sorry.”
She was trembling. He pulled back and smiled at her. It was the same smile he’d worn in the tutorial. The same smile he’d put on all this month, and the last. It was almost like he’d draw it on in ink, and could feel the stickiness of it around his lips long after the rest of his face had abandoned it.
But it was better than nothing.
“I’m ok.” He said.
They walked through the hospital corridors talking of nothing much.
“How are your studies going?”
“Fine, but a bit hard. I think I’m taking it all a bit literally.”
“The university is going to promote me.”
“That’s brilliant. Congratulations.”
“You know, I’m really glad you called me, there’s always space at mine if you need to…”
“Thanks, but I… Thanks.”
They walked past geriatric and maternity wards. Past little glass boxes with wires coming out, sustaining little tiny lives. Past withered looking men and women with wide, lost eyes like children, and no-one by their bedsides. Will didn’t know how to feel. Seeing all these others around him, made anger, like the anger he’d felt at his father’s death, seem futile. Self-aggrandising. He just felt brittle, as though one too-heavy step would shatter him.
When they reached his mum’s bedside she was awake. She recoiled, hissing, when she saw them. She pressed back against the backboard shaking her head, plucking at her sheet and counting under her breath. Counting, as though she could number the world’s atoms and so bring them under control. But she kept losing track. And so she gritted her teeth and a fierceness set in her eyes, a fierceness that Will recognised. And she started again.
She looked so ill. So hollow and exhausted. Counting on and on, with one hand plucking, and one hand gripping her sheet until knuckle and were almost the same colour. Will thought he’d never seen any creature look so tired.
(and a voice inside him said except one)
Will knelt beside her and laid his hand atop hers.
“Mum. Mum, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
She didn’t look at him, she shivered and kept counting. Will felt tears sting his eyes. Under his t-shirt, down by his heart, he imagined he could feel a small lithe body moving. His daemon trying to warm him, to curl tight into him and comfort him. He wished so hard he could give her to his Mum, but she was locked away inside.
He smeared the tears away.
“Mum there’s nothing to be afraid of. Mum there’s nothing.”
She looked at him. Her eyes were wide open, searching his.
“Mum, I’ve seen it.”
She stared at him for long minutes, still counting, but softer now. Finally, she gave a tiny hesitant nod. Then the lines on her face relaxed, though whether from exhaustion or relief, Will couldn’t tell. Her eyes closed and the soft little spurts of breath became regular. The sub-vocal numbers grew fainter. But her hand still gripped the sheet like a shield.
Mary was talking to one of the doctors, her face ash grey but composed. She nodded her thanks and then gently helped Will up. They had to pause several times on their way out of the ward, because his legs were numb, and he couldn’t stop shaking.
A sudden fear as they reached the door made him look back. His mind was full of thoughts of choking black feathers and shrill screeches and the faces and the bedraggled breasts of hags. Would she be terrified when she saw them? Too terrified even be able to tell them a true story? He almost ran back to her, to warn her. To tell her to please. Please. Tell them the truth. But he didn’t, because he knew that when she finally faced them she could do nothing else. Will looked around the ward’s other beds. All of these people had faced worse.
She died two weeks later. Will wasn’t there.
When they buried her it was just Will, Mary and the pastor. A soft breeze tugged at the stems of rough grass on the barrow. They interred her body because it seemed like a respectful thing to do. Will was too adrift in… emptiness, was that the word? And he couldn’t think to do anything else. The cemetery priest fussed and wanted to say a prayer over her grave. Will smiled sadly at him; a genuine smile, not the worried paper cut-out he’d worn before, and shook his head.
The priest looked distraught.
“It’s a votive to the Lord.” He said, a little pompously, “so that he will ensure her soul and prepare her for the afterlife.”
Will thought of the relief on her face as she’d faded. How much she’d looked like the poor decrepit angel he and Lyra had helped out into the sunlight.
He thought of the Harpies.
“She’ll do that for herself.”
The priest leaned in, and put a hand on Will’s shoulder. His eyes were rheumy, as though protecting themselves from the sight of too many funerals.
“It’s also supposed to help people let go.”
Will just looked at him.
He felt his Daemon skitter and run up over the back of his neck to watch as the earth was piled back into the grave. He shivered, and reached up to stroke her. Brushing his fingers through the empty air.
“She seemed calmer… before the end.” Mary said.
“There was nothing for her to be afraid of any more.”
We have moved beyond our need for Him.
He tried to imagine that Lyra was also here, in this place in her world. He tried to feel for her and for Pan through the thin film of compacted tiny dimensions and across all that infinite space. Will ached inside, only for an instant before it subsided, but he knew it would come more often now.
He looked up at the sky, as though searching for the light of angels’ wings.
“What are you looking for?”
Will slowly lowered his eyes. That seemed to be the question Mary was always leading him with.
“Nothing.” He said. “It’s here.”
There’s nothing to be afraid of anymore.
“The republic,” he said and started to cry.