By Mimi Mondal
An act of compassion puts a trapeze master in India on a collision course with a terrifying supernatural power.
I am not a fighter. I am a trapeze master.
At the Majestic Oriental Circus, which had been my home for two years, I had climbed the ropes deft and fast, till I was the leader of a team of about fifteen aerial performers. It was in my genes.
There were other rewards, too, of the circus life. It had brought me into the grace of Shehzad Marid. A trapeze master has no lack of duties, training and overseeing his team, but I continued to perform with Shehzad in his grand stage illusion show—“Alladdin and His Magic Lamp.” I took great pride in my own trapeze act, and the team that I trained from scratch, but I have to admit that “Alladin” was the crowds’ favorite.
None of the credit for that popularity was owed to me. I am a genius at the ropes overhead, flinging myself from grip to grip so gracefully you would believe I could fly; but on earth, up close, I am a man entirely devoid of charm. Before I joined the circus, I did not even speak a language that could be understood in polite society. Even now, I fumble for the right word at the right moment; I occasionally slip into an accent that makes the city people sneer.
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But as Alladin, all I had to do was to put on a pair of satin pants and a skullcap, and parrot a series of memorized lines. I had never met an Arab street urchin, nor had an inkling what all the words meant, but neither had anyone in the audience. I bellowed, “Ya Allah!” and “Shukr hai!” and “Dafa ho ja, shaitaan!” at my cues. The girl who trained the parakeets doubled as the princess in a shiny ghagra and choli, adorned with tawdry sequins. Johuree, our proprietor and ringmaster, completed the cast as the villainous Zafar, dressed in a moth-eaten velvet cloak.
It was an almost ridiculous performance, but it turned into the most renowned act of the Majestic Oriental Circus, all at the touch of Shehzad Marid. As the three of us hemmed and hawed through our scripted gibberish, the jinni would emerge from his lamp in clouds of curling smoke. Illuminated by our cheap stage lights, the clouds would take the shape of a magnificent palace, the gaping maw of a cave, raging armies on horseback that crashed into the audience until our entire circus tent would erupt with gasps, applause, and cries of horror and disbelief. A small child could hold open his palm and receive a dancing houree, crafted immaculately of ice as the clouds condensed. Then they billowed up again—into monsters never heard of; swooping rocs; clerics whose voices soared in prayer across minarets that pierced the sky above a faraway, mythical city; hundreds of jinn, and back to the only one. It was a show unlike anything offered by any rival circus company in our land.
I was assigned to this act four months after I joined the Majestic Oriental Circus—a naïve, illiterate, village young man who had been given a job by Dayaram, the former trapeze master, almost out of pity. It turned out that I climbed better than anyone else on the team, but I had never seen a circus before, could hardly follow the shimmering line between illusion and truth. Before I took over, Johuree would play both Alladin and Zafar, disappearing behind the clouds and reappearing in changed costume with a lightness of foot you would not expect from a fat, middle-aged man like him. But then, no one at the Majestic Oriental Circus was merely what met the eye. The circus life is not for the mundane.
Johuree had been happy to delegate Alladin to me. An agile young man was more suited to the role than himself, he had said with a wink in front of the entire company. I nodded along, though both of us knew that was just the cover. A circus troupe had no dearth of agile young men. No—we both knew it was because I was the only other person at the Majestic Oriental Circus that Shehzad Marid had entrusted with his lamp.
I was a hack Alladin, awkward and bombarding, nothing like my fluid, almost lyrical performance on the trapeze ropes. It made the entire act of “Alladin and His Magic Lamp” come across as gaudy, over-the-top. That was just the effect Johuree was going for.
We were a traveling circus, never spending more than a week or two in the same city, town, or village fair. So the day Johuree declared that we would travel to Thripuram to perform at the wedding of the raja’s daughter, we packed up our tents and bags and set out on the journey.
There is little power left in the hands of the rajas of yore, but you wouldn’t think so if you were at the palace of the Thripuram raja on the day we arrived. Accustomed though we were to the illusory palaces of Arabia that Shehzad conjured up three shows a day, our entire troupe gazed awestruck at the vibrantly painted temples, spires, courtly residences, and finally, looming over them all, resplendent in its intricate balconies and mythological frescos adorning the walls, pillars, and steps—the palace itself.
The palace grounds teemed with musicians, poets, storytellers, snake charmers, tawaifs, nautankis—entertainers from all over the land. Those traditional artists had been assigned living quarters inside the buildings. A circus was a foreign entertainment—our troupe an unrestrained mingling of men and women of indistinct lineage, sharing space with monkeys, elephants, birds, tigers. Though we had been invited to perform on the night of the wedding, we were allowed to sleep only in our own trucks and tents. We set them up within the palace grounds, under the sky.
The grounds were thrumming with activity as we rolled into our spots. The hot afternoon air was cloying with the aroma of outdoor cooking, for all the poor people of the city were to eat two meals at the raja’s generosity every day of the festivities. There were two queues of revelers waiting to be fed—one for Brahmins, another for the infidels and the untouchables—winding as long as the eye could see. Wedding guests wandered within the premises, trailed by servants holding umbrellas, fans, and jugs of water. Massive electricity generators growled along the palace walls, powering thousands of lanterns and strings of light. It was a spectacle more modern and grandiose than anything Shehzad could pull up from the myths of a distant past.
If the circus was a novelty to the raja’s palace, it was no less a novelty to us—our entire troupe was comprised of people who had grown up poor. We dealt in glitter and illusion, but all our clothes were cheap synthetics and sequins, often threadbare and sewn together in places; our jewelry made of glass, tinfoil, and paint. We had never seen so many varieties of silk, so many diamonds, rubies, and emeralds casually glittering under daylight as the royal guests wandered by. At lunch, my trapeze team would not stop eating until I threatened them with immediate unemployment if any of them disgraced me at the night’s performance.
As the busy day waned toward sunset, conch shells were sounded, and there was instant silence within the palace grounds. A procession of young women emerged from the doorway of the palace, led by a priest. Each of them carried a holy tray of prayer offerings.
The women were indescribably beautiful, more so in their dazzling, elegant attire, reminding me of the sculptures of apsaras—heavenly dancers—that I had only seen before on temple walls. These women were not dressed like the wives or daughters of the royalty, yet they were too demure, too distant from us. They did not speak with, or even look at, any of the other performers, who stepped back to make way for them to pass.
“Devadasis,” whispered a girl from my trapeze team, her voice nearly choking in awe.
“What are they?” I whispered back. I was completely ignorant of the customs of royalty, but even Shehzad, who was less so, stared uncomprehendingly at these women.
“I have never seen one of them before,” the girl explained under her breath, never once taking her eyes off the fascinating trail. “You never see a devadasi—no commoner does, except on occasions like this. Devadasis are holy courtesans, bequeathed at birth to the patron deity of a kingdom, maintained by its king. They are trained as dancers, but not like any of us. They will never perform before a commoner, or in exchange for money. Their dance is an act of worship. They are divine.” The girl’s words swung gently between envy and faith. “The devadasis will now go to the town’s main temple to seek blessings for the raja’s daughter. Offer themselves up in performance. The wedding can only take place after the kuldevi—the patron goddess of the kingdom—has bestowed her blessings.”
“No one told me there was anything supernatural in this town,” I said, intrigued. Two years ago I would have laughed at any mention of such things, but enough time at the Majestic Oriental Circus opens the mind to all kinds of possibilities.
The girl laughed. “Who said anything was supernatural? Everything’s a joke to you, Binu’da. I meant real divine, like priests are divine. Devadasis commune with the gods. They are born into holiness. They don’t do tricks with sleight of hand and offstage machinery. That’s what people come to us for.”
I stared again—the face of the young woman at the head of the procession was so flawless and serene that I could almost believe in her divinity. Priests were born into the Brahmin caste, and I had met enough Brahmins in my life to know that not all of them were priests, or even had a shred of spirituality in them. Usually they were arrogant and corrupt, frankly quite despicable people to know. But the gaze of this woman was clear and resolute, fixed at the vermilion sky toward the temple where she was headed. Her step was graceful, undoubtedly perfected through the lifelong dance-worship to which she was devoted. No creature could be further removed from the giggling girls in my circus, whose brittle poise disappeared as soon as they stepped behind the stage.
Afterward, we returned to our tents to prepare for our show, which was to be the opening performance of the wedding celebrations. We were not there to watch the devadasis return.
The show went off smoothly. My boys and girls could hardly keep their eyes off the ornate ceiling of the raja’s court as they swung and swerved across it, but none of them faltered at their act. “Alladin and His Magic Lamp” was a roaring success with the royal wedding guests. Shehzad was stoic through all of it—he had seen his share of palace interiors in his time. The raja came down from his throne to shake our hands after the show, but we were never introduced to the princess, who had watched our performance from a latticed balcony above. No common entertainer was permitted to speak with the royal bride, even if they performed at her wedding.
“Really, Binu, stop staring at that balcony and shut your mouth,” Shehzad snapped at me as our troupe filed out of the royal court. “You make yourself look like a fool.”
“Hey, Alladin is meant to be really popular with the princesses, right?” I teased him. I was still decked out in the satin-pants-and-skullcap attire. “But this pathetic Alladin can’t even catch a glimpse of a real princess. What good is having a faithful jinni at your command if he cannot even introduce you to a princess?”
“Princesses look just like other women,” Shehzad sneered. “And this one is getting married already, so you’re out of luck. You’ve met the raja. His daughter probably would have the same, uh, generous nose. Hopefully not also the generous moustache.”
We guffawed, eyes shining into each other’s for a fleeting moment. Then I said, “But you saw all those devadasis. Think about it. If mere women of the court can look like that, the princess must be—”
“The princess is not one of those women,” Shehzad said, making a sharp turn away from the direction of the lavish dining arrangements.
“You will not dine with us?”
“Since when did I eat the same food as you people, Binu?”
“But you always come along and make the pretense,” I said, surprised at the brusqueness that I did not entirely feel I deserved.
“That’s when we dine with the rest of our circus troupe, to make sure that no one suspects otherwise,” he replied. “There are too many people at this place. Too much going on. No one will miss Shehzad Marid.”
“I must retire to the lamp,” he said, as if shaking off the hurt in my voice. “These festivities will continue late into the night, and our troupe begins to pack up at dawn. If I slip away now, I can steal a few hours of respite.”
I always carried the lamp in our trunk of clothes, scrubby enough to look like a circus prop. The actual prop was a cheaper but shinier replica, tossed around on the stage between Alladin and Zafar. No human hand but mine had touched the real lamp in the past two years, and with nothing but gratitude. Nothing but love.
Nothing but that inchoate sensation of wistfulness that congealed in my chest on the nights that I lay awake in our tent, gazing at the lamp on my bedside after Shehzad had receded into it. If I picked it up, it would be cold, weightless—a thing forged centuries ago in a distant land; a curiosity, but not an especially valuable one in itself. It was a common household object, Shehzad once told me; street vendors in Arabia sold great quantities of them to this day. With regular use, it would have lasted about five or six years.
But this lamp had survived centuries, traveled hundreds of miles from its homeland, passed from hand to bloody, victorious hand. My callused trapeze-artist hands could barely contain it. Another century or two will blow over any trace of my fingers from its surface, as perhaps from the spirit it enclosed.
From the stories people tell, even those in our own hack show, the lamp sounds like a prison. The listener imagines himself being suffocated, neck twisted, limbs folded at painful angles, squeezed into a box too small to contain his body and left there to wait for decades. But the listener of the tale is human—imprisoned already in his withering flesh and bone, the measured years that are given to him. The human mind can barely fathom the bond between its own body and soul. What would it grasp of the relationship between a jinni and his lamp? What could I—hardly a philosopher, never having read a book, barely literate enough to scribble my own name—grasp of it?
In our two years of friendship, I had learned every detail of Shehzad Marid’s humanity. There was no man, or woman, that I knew better. I could read each of his smiles, each raised eyebrow, each cryptic comment for exactly what it was. But I had also learned that his humanity was mere performance. He was relieved to shed it, as I was to remove my circus costumes and makeup. Shehzad Marid’s greatest gift to me was the knowledge that I would never truly know the core of his existence, and not merely because I was unread.
And perform he did, never cracking, never missing a beat, longer than any of us at the circus. No one but Johuree knew, or suspected, anything about Shehzad’s true nature. Even when he manifested in “Alladin and His Magic Lamp,” weaving his way through wonders that no human could pull off, it was carefully designed to look like a triumph of stagecraft. Because I loved him, because I would never understand him at any greater depth than that, all I could do was to give him a break from the act when he asked.
“Wake me up if you need something,” he told me before he left, adding, “but do spare me if it has more to do with princesses. You need to find yourself a different jinni for that.”
I smiled, squeezed his hand, and let him go. Where would I—Trapeze Master Binu of the Majestic Oriental Circus—find a different jinni, and why would I ever want another?
It was past midnight when the members of the troupe retreated to our tents. Within the palace, the tawaifs were still dancing for the last sleepless revelers, but the palace grounds were now empty, for the common revelers had long since departed. Getting into my bed, I pressed a finger against the cold metal of Shehzad’s lamp, but did not drag it. I needed my rest as much as he needed his.
I must have barely drifted into blissful slumber when I woke up again at a hushed commotion from the trapeze artists’ tents. It was the second hour of the night, still too dark to see without a light. A couple of girls came running to our tent.
“It’s a woman from the palace, Binu’da!” they informed me. “Says she wants to have a word with you.”
I couldn’t recall talking much with any woman at the palace. Who would come looking for me in the dead of the night? I turned up the wick of my oil lamp and stepped out, sure that whoever it was must have mistaken me for someone else.
The woman in question was dressed in a simple sari, her long hair flowing over her back. I was startled to recognize the head devadasi of the Thripuram raja’s palace—the woman whose face had launched me into a thousand speculations earlier that day. With the expensive drapes and jewelry removed, she looked no older than sixteen or seventeen.
Seeing her now, the first emotion that hit me was panic. Even speaking to this girl could probably get me punished by the raja. “How did you come here?” I blurted out. “Has anyone seen you?”
“I told my maids that I wanted to pet the tigers,” the girl said, and shrugged nonchalantly. “No one in this palace had ever seen a tiger before. And I am known to be willful.”
“The tigers have been sedated for the night—” I started to say, but she cut me off.
“The tigers can wait. I want you to let me sneak into your circus and escape this wretched palace.”
“I have been dancing for fifteen years now, ever since I learned to walk,” said the girl. “There’s no trick any of your girls can perform that I can’t pick up in just a few days. I will be the best performer you’ve ever had.”
“But you are a devadasi!” I peered in astonishment at the wide-eyed, long-lashed face that was no less attractive for its bareness. “You live at the palace; you have more luxuries than any of us can imagine. You commune with the gods! Why would someone like you want to stoop to the circus?”
“And what does communing with the gods generally entail, do you think?”
I had to admit I didn’t know.
“I live at the palace, but I am not a princess. None of my clothing or jewelry belongs to me. I don’t actually have a single possession that cannot be taken away with a command from the raja. I do not employ my maids—they maintain my household but also keep an eye on me, report my activities to the raja. Tell me why the raja spends so much money keeping women like me?”
“Because you commune… ?” My own words sounded ridiculous to me.
“That’s what it says in the scriptures, doesn’t it?” said the girl. “The priest communes with the gods with his mind, and the devadasi communes with her body. I wouldn’t know—I was never taught to read the scriptures. I’m illiterate as they come. Reading is not a devadasi’s function. Though I could tell you all you ever wished to know about dance, about communing with higher powers with my body. Make a man of you too, if you wish.” She gave me a saucy smile, but it felt more dangerous than inviting.
“If you don’t like this life, why don’t you go back to your family? Why fling yourself at a group of strangers like this?” I asked.
“Because you’re the only strangers at this wedding who would take me,” said the girl. “You’re an odd bunch. You don’t belong to any traditional system. There are all sorts of performers in your group—surely you can find some use for a devadasi? No one else has any need for me. Devadasis don’t belong to families. We are bequeathed to the gods—we cannot be possessed by men, be that father or husband. My mother was also a devadasi, as was grandmother before her.”
“But some man must have fathered you, seeing as you’re just as human as I am,” I said. “His is the house where you should go, even if you don’t like them, or they you.”
“The raja? But I already live at his house!” The girl startled me with a mirthless laugh. “Of course, I don’t count as the raja’s daughter, because a daughter can only be born of a man and a woman. Devadasis aren’t women; we are offerings made to the patron goddess, entitled to be consumed by the maker of the offering once we have been touched by the goddess. I am not even an illicit child, merely a blessing received by my mother in the performance of her role, more property added to the coffers of the raja who owned her. I am cleverer, more beautiful, more talented than the princess whose wedding you graced with your performance, but she is the princess, and I am property. I am less than even the common free woman in the street.”
I’ll be honest—I had never heard anything like that. Not that I ever understood the elaborate social intricacies of the upper classes, but I always knew that I did not trust them, and her story just seemed to confirm my mistrust. If what this girl was saying was true, I could not possibly tell her to go back to the raja’s palace. But it was also impossible to imagine her at the circus—with her delicate step, her sheltered view of life, those smooth white hands that had probably never done a day’s work.
I told her so.
“The circus is no life for a lady like you. You have only seen us in performance. You cannot begin to imagine the sweat, heat, dust, filth, and flies on the road; sleeping huddled in tents; washing with animals in public ponds; the tasteless slop that we eat; the insecurity and physical labor that make up most of our days. I doubt you have the grit to survive it.”
“If that is so,” said the girl, “I will part ways with your circus once you deliver me to the nearest city. I have heard that our traditional dance is being made secular in the cities, that there are dancers who are well respected in the community without belonging to any king or any temple. They give performances for the public, teach classes, save their own money, and can also marry and have children if they wish. If I make it to the city, I will find ways to survive. All I need is safe passage out of here.”
Something about this girl had touched my heart the very first time I saw her at the head of the holy procession. I didn’t wish to call it infatuation, but Shehzad had noticed it too—it was what made him testy enough to retreat into his lamp. True, if she hadn’t come to me, I would never have sought her out, but I would also have gone on believing that she lived a life just as ethereal as her face, devoted to worship and virtue that more common people like myself could not afford.
“Don’t think I don’t intend to compensate you for your assistance,” the girl said, giving me a smile of such well-honed coyness that it made my heart do an inadvertent leap. “I had no money to bring, but once you take me to the city, I promise to make you memories that you will cherish for the rest of your life.”
“There’s no need for any of that,” I said, recoiling at the insinuation. I looked up at the sky—there were still a couple of hours before we were scheduled to leave. By the time the rest of the palace started waking up from the previous night’s revelries, the Majestic Oriental Circus would be well on its way.
“Go to one of the girls’ tents and get some sleep,” I told our new stowaway. “We have a long day’s journey ahead.”
The sky was clear, a deep rouge spreading over the eastern horizon when the Majestic Oriental Circus began its preparations to leave the Thripuram raja’s palace. Half-asleep, disheveled performers emerged from their tents, which were then unmounted and loaded onto trucks. The birds and animals clamored to be fed before they were secured. At my instruction, the young devadasi had changed into clothes from the other girls of the troupe and blended in with them, just in case anyone from the palace was keeping watch as we filed out. I went to have a word with Johuree.
“The Majestic Oriental Circus has always been a refuge to outcasts and runaways,” he began, and I nodded. “But this woman is beholden to powers beyond ourselves.”
The diamond in Johuree’s false left eye pierced me with a red glint from the rising sun. “By giving her shelter, you have taken on charges that are yours alone.”
“If any trouble comes of this girl, I promise to step up to it,” I told my trusted employer and friend. “She will be fed and clothed out of my salary. I will protect and instruct her, and make sure she finds lodgings in the city when we get there. The circus will not have to bear any responsibility for my decision.”
Shehzad was not pleased when he emerged.
“I have never seen a bigger fool than you,” he grumbled, skulking around the gathered props and trunks that were the farthest from the newest member of our troupe. “A pretty girl comes simpering with a sob story, and suddenly Trapeze Master Binu is the gallant savior we all lacked. Why do you think she did not go to any other guest at the wedding? Why not appeal to Johuree directly, if she wanted to join the circus? She came to you because she had noticed you stare at her earlier like a mesmerized child. She knew you wouldn’t be able to say no.”
“I suppose you’re right,” I said, trying to rest a hand on his arm, trying to pull him into a reluctant embrace. There was no use trying to disguise my thoughts from Shehzad. “But that does not prove that she’s wrong in trying to escape, or that the people who would decline to help her are correct. I am doing the right thing here, Shehzad, even if it’s not the most practical thing to do.”
“I have served warrior after warrior, as far back as I can remember,” he said. “A few of them were unkind masters, but others were loving and respectful, though they still owned me. There are worse lives than that of a glorified slave.”
“But now you are free. Wouldn’t you say you prefer the change of circumstances?”
“No one is ever free, least of all a jinni. Only the nature of the master changes,” Shehzad replied curtly before turning to walk away. “If I am free now, it’s because my master wishes me so. My next master may be worse, as may that girl’s or any other’s.”
I stared at his receding back, the taut, defiant muscles that I longed to knead with my palms, to remind him that I had never been his master. But that would have to wait for another time, far away from this palace with its loathsome practices.
The skies began to grow ominously dark as soon as our trucks rolled out of the palace gates. Clouds rumbled. Tree branches cracked overhead. Waves of dust rose on the distant horizon. Within the town of Thripuram, as we passed, the few early risers hurried to return inside; doors and windows were noisily shut. It was a storm as unseasonal as any in this part of the land.
The trucks were the closest we had to homes, in fair or rough weather, so we trudged on until we were on the dirt roads that led out of the town, and could simply go no farther. Unrestrained by any more houses, the winds came pounding at our canvas walls like solid boulders. The trucks swayed like they were wooden toys for children, not hundreds of tons of machine on wheels. Inside, our animals screamed and rattled against their cages. Dust clouds covered the sky, obscuring the sun. Our drivers could no longer see the road. Dust, razor-sharp and unforgiving, filled the eyes and nostrils of anyone who tried to look outside.
Usually, a heavy rain comes lashing quick on the trail of a dust storm, calming the winds and weighing down the dust into mud, but it had been an hour since this dust had risen, and there was still not a drop of moisture.
As I sat in the first of our trucks, a massive trumpeting from the truck behind us told me that the elephants had broken free, and another tearing, heart-wrenching wail followed as one of them was blown away by the winds. In all my thirty years of life, I have never heard anything like it.
The third truck, carrying the clowns, fire-eaters, and my own trapeze team, soon turned to its side with a sickening lurch. From my own truck I could hear none of their voices, although in my guts I could feel them crying, praying to their respective gods, groaning as they scrambled in blindness, bones trampled and crunched. The girl whom we had rescued from the palace was among them too. Perhaps Shehzad was right—if we all died in this freak apocalypse this morning, I would have proved to be a worse master than the raja, not only to her but to everyone else in my care.
I am a man who has left his own forest deities far behind in his past, so there was no greater power to whom I could kneel. In any case, if all these other pious people’s prayers were going unheard, how might I—faithless of heart—sway any god to my favor?
A heavy figure swayed its way through the truck and dropped heavily, purposefully next to me. It was Johuree.
“Trapeze Master Binu, you promised to bear responsibility,” he whispered into my ear. Each of his words fell like the gong of a temple bell, cutting through the mayhem outside my brain.
“What—this dust storm?!” I was stunned by his suggestion. “You think I have something to do with this?”
“I did warn you that the girl you rescued was beholden to powers beyond ourselves.”
“I thought—I thought you meant the Thripuram raja and his administration!”
Johuree said nothing, just stared at me with his cold eyes, both living and stone. Nothing was enough.
“I don’t know how to… I don’t know who—”
The crashes and screams returned, closing in on my senses like water over the head of a drowning man. So I rose to my feet, staggering from wall to wall as the floor of the truck churned beneath me and dropped myself into the dust-filled darkness.
There was nothing, absolutely nothing to see. My eyes, ears, and mouth were assaulted by dust as soon as I hit the ground. Dust scraped against my bare legs beneath my dhoti like a thousand razor blades. In less than a second, every inch of my skin felt like it was being flayed. I could feel the blood trickle down my arms, legs, chest; I could feel my face growing muddy with blood.
Coughing, choking, spitting, I called out into the nothingness, “Here I am: Trapeze Master Binu. I think it is me you want.” I spat out more dust. “Spare the rest of the circus. They took no part in my decision to rescue the girl.”
I waited, struggling to breathe. Feeling foolish.
Then a voice came, responding to my cry. I do not know why I remember it as a female voice, because it did not even sound human. It came from the wind, molding and resonating as a blend of dust and words.
“I am the kuldevi of the kingdom of Thripuram,” she said. “Stupid human, filthy, untouchable low-caste whom no god will deign to claim for his own, did you think you could run away with my property and pay nothing for your crime?”
Her insults did not perturb me—I have heard them and worse from people, and expected no better from their gods—but the words still made my blood boil.