We’re pleased to publish an excerpt from The Hubris of an Empty Hand, the new short story collection from Mahyar A. Amouzegar. Disorder author Amy Crider called this collection “A mysterious book that will make you re-evaluate your assumptions about Promethean gifts and the promise of knowledge” — an enticing description if ever there was one.
The Gods In Between
Three men sat around a table in a small tavern in the center of a city called Susa—a city of immense importance that would survive for over five thousand years. Today, however, marked the first year of its conquest by the Persian King, and there were crowds in the streets in anticipation of the King’s visit. The weather had warmed, and the trees were showing the first sign of spring. It had drizzled earlier in the day, settling the dust, and making the air churn with the earthy smell.
The small tavern had withstood hundreds of years of Elamites and Assyrians, and the patrons would not be faulted for believing it would endure the Persians too. The inn was busy with men and a few women eating lamb stew and drinking the region’s dark rich wine.
The place was noisy, with many conversations in a multitude of languages, but the three sat silently around the table. The men appeared to belong to the same family as they looked similar—same eyes and nose with a round, symmetric face. They were wearing identical cavalry costume of Elamites that indicated their high rank in the Court. Two of them wore low leather sandals with bare toes, fastened by four straps, but the person at the end of the table had selected a Susa yellow shoe for his left foot and a Persian royal red for his right.
The maiden who had served them their wine had spoken to them in what we now call Ancient Persian, and the three replied with the same fluency as if it was their mother tongue. She had put a clay jug of wine and four goblets on the table, as she had been instructed, but did not seek payment, even though it was essential on such a busy day.
The three sat and waited.
The tavern’s door opened, though no one was there, and a light wind entered the room as if it had been waiting outside for an invitation. The maiden had come by the men’s table to ask if they wanted some of the stew, but as she opened her mouth, a shiver run down her spine, and her body trembled in response. At the very same moment, a few other customers felt the same chill.
However, the feeling was not widespread. Those who were sitting next to the open window, where the warm sun was streaming in, thought the light had dimmed a bit, as if a cloud had passed in front of the sun. A few looked up, but the sky was clear and blue. A few others, especially those closest to the door, felt a sudden melancholy deep within them, remembering the loss of loved ones. And a few felt nothing at all. For a moment, there was an absolute pause, and silence blanketed the room, and then all was gone, vanishing with the same speed that it had materialized.
Death appeared as he always did and sat regally across from the three men. The black cloak draped around him made him look taller. He had a long, strong face with deep dark eyes. He did not look old nor young, and if one had the will to look into his eyes long enough, one could see the immense power that resided behind them.
Death beamed and took a sip from the cup that had been waiting for him. The maiden looked at him, and he nodded.
“Go on with your work, Spenta. You will be fine for many years to come.” Spenta bowed and walked away.
Death followed her with his eyes for a moment and then turned around and faced the three, and as a way of explanation, offered, “I try to make myself as pleasant and ordinary to humans as possible when I show myself to them, but some still can sense my true self and need some reassurance of their longevity. That’s why I try to stay hidden most of the time.” He gave a small smile as if he found the human’s fear of morbidity amusing. The others nodded, as they knew Death and his odd sense of humor well. Death then turned serious and asked earnestly, “Have you heard of the tale that is being told in the Babylonian Talmud?”
The other men shook their heads slightly but did not speak.
Death looked ahead through the window and stared at the blossoms on the trees across the tavern. “It’ll be said better later, two millennia from now, but the essence of it is:
One day Joseph noted that I was sad. ‘Why art thou sad?’ he asked me. I answered, pointing at the men sitting behind him, ‘Because, I must have these men by tomorrow.’ Joseph did not want to lose his companions, so he sent them to Susa to be safe. But when they reached the city of Susa, and after they slept a restful night, I took their lives before the new sun rose in the sky. Joseph saw me that night and observed that I was full of mirth. ‘Why art thou joyful?’— ‘To Susa, you sent your companions, where they were to meet me.’
“Am I Joseph?” the man with the mismatched shoes asked.
“You may be one day, but not today.”
“We are in Susa, and I brought them here. Did I wrong them as Joseph did his companions?”
The man in the middle stirred, but Death avoided his eyes, still staring ahead. “True. But the parable is of men and not of our kind.”
“I gave them the knowledge,” the man at the other end of the table said. “I don’t believe I’ve done them wrong. This was not a conspiracy against anyone.”
“I am Death,” Death replied. And then he turned around and looked at the three at once. “I don’t take lives, as human beings erroneously believe, but rather I’m the conduit from life to death. I don’t take pleasure in doing my job, but neither do I shirk from doing it as I should. I was born with humans, and I will cease my existence when they end. I am here and now, but I am also there and then. I can see what you cannot. I have a job, and so do each one of you.”
Death paused and looked at each man with a focus that only he could possess. The man with the mismatched shoes was called Misery, though he had been called Achlys, Oizys, and many other names throughout history. Still, none described him as it should. He was almost as old as Death, and he had been present in as many places and times as Death. And the man next to him was Empathy, and he was much younger, generations younger. He, too, had many names such as Eleos, Rashnu, and Vishnu. And the last person was called k’Nowledge. Compared to the rest, he was a child, though he had become the most powerful, acquiring names such as Mimir, Odin, and Anahita. They were men for today, but they were also many other things at various times. And of course, they were not alone as there were others like them—Eros, Mithra, Zorvan, who held the infinite time, and Angra Mainyu, who hated the humans and sowed discord and chaos—some keeping companions and others staying aloof.
“We have been faithful to our tasks. We are here to help them, but we are no slaves,” Misery said.
Death shook his head with sympathy. “We evolve like any other being, but we will always have to do our tasks. We can only be who we are in our core.”
“I’ve tried to be who I am meant to be,” spoke Empathy for the first time in his usual deep, warm voice.
Death smiled but shook his head. “We must disagree. You’re young and impetuous.”
“But we cannot die until the end,” interjected k’Nowledge.
“I’m not sure if it’s true for all of us,” Death replied.
“Long enough that my story is told again, and again.”
“My intention was good,” said Empathy.
“Perhaps, but its consequences are unpredictable.”
“We can take it back,” offered k’Nowledge.
“It’s too late. Your infection is spreading as we speak. Where do you think this parable came from?”
“I can still stop the spread. It was a tiny piece. I can take it away from the King, and it will die its natural death,” said Empathy hurriedly and without much conviction.
“Compassion is not something you can take away. You know that well,” Death said.
“How did it spread?”
“As soon as you gave it to the King, he felt it, and he liked it. Perhaps he was ready for it; perhaps it was inevitable. I do not know. You gave him a gift, and it grew within him, and he didn’t have the knowledge to understand it or manage it. He did not recognize the feeling. He had no name for it. Yet, he used it to free the people he had conquered in Babylon. He, unintentionally, broke your gift into pieces and passed some of it to his people.”
“Aren’t they better for having it?” Misery asked.
“We don’t know. We cannot know everything. The fear is that some will be immune to it, and in the end, it may not help them.”
Empathy smiled and leaned forward to make his point. “Is that so bad?” he asked in a hushed tone. “I disagree that they were better off without it. How could they evolve without true compassion, and not what they have been espousing as such?”
“Human beings were doing fine before your interference,” Death replied.
“Were they? They were uncivilized and brutish, and now they feel something for their fellow men,” Empathy said.
“I do not have the answers you seek. I know that you changed many lives, and what was mine will not be mine for decades. And those lives will create more lives and then more and then more. In the end, it will be all balanced from my end, of course, but the lives that were not meant to be, will be.”
k’Nowledge leaned forward too. “I believe we’ve disproved your parable.”
“You’re a child, yet you’re the most culpable. You’ve infected these conquered people, and the infection will grow stronger in years. They will know more than others, and that will be both their blessing and their penance. And the few lives that were to be taken now will be taken in multiples and all at once then.”
“You cannot see the future so clearly,” k’Nowledge rejoined. “I did not infect them. I gave humans a gift like Empathy has, and with our combined gifts, they will be better for it.”
“I know my occupation,” Death said wistfully. “Most misunderstand the allegory. It is not about one or two, but about nature’s balance. And for certain, this balance will not change. These people, too, have a destiny, and they must keep their appointment. And they will do so in the most horrific way.”
Death leaned closer to k’Nowledge and Empathy and proclaimed, “And for what you have done, you will be banished from the earthly realm for two thousand years.”
“Why you? Why you as our judge and jury?”
“I am neither. Each of us has a job, and mine is to guide you from life to death.”
“We are gods,” k’Nowledge declared.
“Yes, in your ways, you are. It’s the cruel irony that by infecting the humans, you have condemned the gods to slow oblivion.”
“Who will do our jobs then? Who will guide them through time?” Empathy asked. He looked sad and worried and looked at each of his companions for support.
“Misery will absorb both empathy and knowledge. He brought you here, and therefore, he will carry the burden.”
Misery stood up sharply. “It’s both cruel and impossible. I cannot be all three at once. My job is to be there when the wretchedness of the world is upon the people. One cannot have a gift that gives when one requires selfishness. Despair does not want to empathize with another. I reject the Gift, but I’m willing to be the guardian of this infection that k’Nowledge has brought on them. I am certain it will need me when it has grown beyond human capacity.”
Death stood up too. “You and I have been comrades in our tasks from almost the beginning, but we are nothing but simple servants. You have no choice in this matter, my friend.”
He reached over and touched the two, and then there was only Misery, with his mismatched shoes, standing alone with four empty wine goblets.