The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty

The Time of Waiting


The young god closed the door to his home, glancing from force of habit at the bridge path that led to The Town. Bernie had not taken that path for several days, nor would he today. Instead, he circled around to the back of the small home he shared with his mother. There he would take a less used path into the woods.

“Where shall we go today?” he asked, although he appeared to be alone. “I know. Let’s go to the lookout point. We haven’t been there for a while.” His invisible friend did not reply, although a small group of twigs quickly assembled on the path behind the boy and began merrily hopping along in single file after him.

Bernie would never have called his companion a friend, any more than he would have called his finger a friend. But he had developed a habit of talking to him as if he understood—and perhaps in some ways he did. He was usually better behaved when Bernie talked to him. If left to his own devices, well, then anything might happen…

During his younger years, he had often thought of his companion as an evil force, something to be fought or battled into submission. For a long time he felt shame, as if it was a dark curse or terrible flaw. He tried to hide it—still did, really—but that usually just made things worse. Other gods had clouds, of course, but not nearly as strong. Nor as chaotic.

‘It’s not your fault,’ they told him. ‘When each child is born, Order and Chaos fight for dominance. For most children, it’s a close battle, and the child ends up with only a slight inclination toward one side or the other. This imbalance is what we call the cloud, and, for most people, their cloud is rarely heard from. But for people like you, Bernie, your cloud is very strong. When Order and Chaos were supposed to fight for you, Order never showed up, and Chaos won by default,’ they said. ‘That’s why your cloud is so strong.’

‘You can’t win by fighting your cloud. You have to make friends with it. Try to understand what it wants. Learn to live with it,’ they counseled. ‘After all, it’s part of you.’ Bernie tried. Really, he did. But it was hard to be friends with something inherently chaotic. It was unpredictable, disorderly, unreliable, and often just plain stubborn.

01_1014-05-28 21.52.42As the young god entered the woods, the sky seemed to darken. In the woods, the gods took no responsibility for encouraging or discouraging the trees from doing whatever they wanted, although the Town Council had discussed it often enough. One tree in particular—the Old One—was the subject of perennial discussions. The tree’s big offense was having attained a height so great some complained it blocked the sun in much of the Northeast Quadrant. An exaggeration, perhaps, but that didn’t explain why no one ever volunteered to take it down. It didn’t explain their fear.

Bernie’s path took him to the trunk of the great tree. “Hello, Old One,” he said as if greeting a friend.

Even from the far side of town, the great tree could be seen towering above their world. Bernie stroked his hands against the soft warm bark. The tree had been created by a god, of course, but so long ago no one remembered who had done it or why. Even its placement in the woods was a mystery. Perhaps it had been an accidental passenger, riding in the entrails of some exotic creation, excreted on fertile ground, and left to grow. Bernie had been delighted the first time he touched it and discovered it was warm-blooded.

Bernie put his ear against the great tree and listened to the slow quiet rumble of its great heart as it pushed the sap through its veins. “I think you will outlast us all,” he said as he stroked the soft bark.

Bernie felt a small tap on his leg. Expecting a cloud-prank, he found instead a green vine rearing up like a snake in front of him. Although it looked like a plant, he knew it was not.

“Ah,” he said as understanding dawned, “are you sure you want to go up there?” The vine creature tapped higher on his leg. “Okay, okay,” he said, “I’ll help.”

Bernie gently grasped the slither, lifting it upward, its head snaking higher as it reached for a low branch. Bernie laughed as the slither wrapped itself around his arms and neck in its struggle to ascend. Finally, its head reached the low branch where it twisted around twice before pulling the rest of its long body up the great tree. Slithers were always looking for tall trees where they could reach the sunlight. Once there, tiny leaf-like scales that covered their bodies would fan outward, capturing the sun’s precious energy. If they found the right tree, they would spend their entire lives there.

Bernie smiled. “You’ve found the ultimate home here, little buddy.”

Slithers were one of the refugee species. When a god brought one of their creations to town, they made sure the species was harmless. Sometimes a new species didn’t play well with others, but that was uncommon. The most common offense of a refugee species was over-population. If enough people complained, the Town Council would take action and impose a ban. Usually the banned species was rounded up and thrown into an empty void. Occasionally, a handful escaped the roundup and found safety in the woods.

In the woods, they were safe from the gods… And they were safe from any other refugees that found their way to the woods. But the indigenous life forms that crawled up the side of the plateau from time to time, well, that was a different story. They could be dangerous. Perhaps it was a good thing slithers spent their lives in the treetops.
Bernie felt a guilty pleasure for his love of the woods. He didn’t know anyone else who felt the same. Most gods shunned the woods and the danger, but this was Bernie’s backyard and his youth had been spent here. In school, he seldom talked about the woods, having learned it was best not to give more reasons for people to see him as different. Most already thought him strange.

Too far away for the young god to hear, soft rustling sounds were being made. Even if he heard the creatures that made the sound, he would not have seen them. The woods were filled with brushes, shrubs, and tall ferns that obscured the view. And hiding places were plentiful. From dark and hidden places, tiny eyes watched the young god’s every move. It was not the first time the watchers had followed the boy. They had little fear of discovery as they trailed him deeper into the wood.

01_22.14.53When the path separated, Bernie took the right fork, knowing it led to the stream. This was one of four streams that began at the artesian well in the center of town. Each stream spiraled through the town once before finally reaching the rim of the great plateau and cascading over The Edge. Bernie discovered a crossing years ago where a tree had fallen across the stream; this had become his bridge. The other gods would have laughed at him for calling it a bridge, but it accomplished the same purpose: reaching the other side of the stream.

As he climbed on top of the fallen tree, he said, “Okay now, let’s be careful. We don’t want to get wet.”

Once, his invisible cloud had not understood the precarious nature of balancing high above the rushing waters and had decided to lighten the mood by tickling Bernie. That had resulted in wet clothes, angry words, and a long walk home. Since then, no chaotic episodes had intruded on Bernie’s river crossing attempts. But, each time, he made a point of reminding his cloud to be careful.

He’d learned a lot about his cloud over the years. It was easily agitated. Strong emotions of any kind guaranteed chaotic consequences, so Bernie learned to keep his feelings hidden. That was the best way to avoid the unpredictable. Out of habit, Bernie sent gentle, calming thoughts as he balanced on the log leading to the other side. The cloud rewarded him by confining its attention to the creation of ripple patterns in the water, which were quickly carried away by the current. Neither Bernie nor his cloud noticed the tiny watchers as they crossed the bridge after him just moments later.

Strolling down the path leading to the lookout point, Bernie heard the sound of water colliding with the rocky slope as it reached the North Fall. Gentle breezes whispered in high branches. On rare days when the wind blew strong, the whistling rocks added their sound to the falling water. Bernie knew few people had ever heard their music. Patches of blue sky were infrequent in the shady woods. Near Bernie’s feet, where no breeze blew, leaves and twigs twirled in a windless dance as the young god passed by.

Strange creatures called out from hidden places. Many, he had never seen up close. Some, glimpsed out of the corner of his eye, vanished when he turned to look. If I had my powers here, he thought, I would love to know what they look like.

“We’re almost at the lookout,” he said as the shaded woods began yielding to the openness beyond The Edge.
The prominence Bernie called ‘lookout point’ was a flat-topped boulder rising above and extending beyond the rocky border that made up The Edge. There was little vegetation that chose to live on the bare rock, although a handful of refugees, and perhaps some indigenous creatures, scrambled from their warm sunny places when they heard the young god approaching. Bernie climbed the short distance to the top. Although trees blocked any view of The Town, he had a magnificent view of the wilderness that extended down the side of the plateau and all the way to the horizon. Other places along The Edge were less steep, and it was possible to walk down the slope to the unknown country, although, of course, no one ever did.

Bernie had an outstanding view. He could see all the way to the horizon. The wilderness below was thicker and more overgrown than the woods. The colors of the indigenous life below seemed more drab and less interesting than the life created by the gods. But, that was mere speculation, since no gods had ever explored the unknown territory. In the distance, Bernie could see lakes and large ponds, and always, there was the mysterious blue mountain barely visible against the horizon. He had spent many hours on this very rock, wondering about that mountain.

“Someday, we’re going exploring,” he said. Bernie smiled as he felt invisible hands press on his chest, holding him back. “Don’t worry. Not anytime soon.” Here, in the woods, he was at ease with his cloud. This was a safe place, and the cloud did little to embarrass him here.

Had there ever been a time before when Bernie felt so relaxed or so content? The young god smiled as he thought of everything he had accomplished. Graduating as a builder was the highest achievement possible. And he was a good builder, too. Not as good as his dad, maybe, but then, who was?

“Did you think we would make it? There were lots of times when I wasn’t so sure.” He suppressed the temptation to point out that most of those times were directly attributable to the cloud. “They threw everything they could at us. We can build suns, planets, moons, and everything in between. And we’re not half-bad with life forms, either. We passed it all. We’re builders!

“Mom is so proud of us,” he said, savoring the feeling. Then, unbidden, his thoughts turned to his father. “I wonder if Dad even knows I’ve graduated. Do you think he would be proud of me?”

There was no answer. There was never any answer.

Bernie sighed.

His gloomy thoughts turned into a chuckle when he felt something patting him on the head. “Yes, I know. We did great. All we can do now is wait for the interview. Suzie said it can take a few days because they look at your file and talk to your teachers before they call you in.”

After working so hard for so long, it was a true pleasure just to relax. No classes, no homework, no extra-credit assignments, no part time jobs. It was the closest Bernie had ever had to a vacation. As the shadows lengthened and the day drew to a close, Bernie felt at peace.

* * *

As the young god made his way back through the woods, the tiny eyes watched him. Stealthy and careful, nothing betrayed their presence as they followed the boy all the way back to his home.


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