From the Heavenly City's public announcement system came the urgent words: "Son calling Daddy! Son calling Daddy!"
The three fathers looked at each other in shock and dismay.
"I believe it's for you," said Nicholas to Yahweh as he hastily rose from the table.
"I know it's for you," agreed Adam as he arose and left, calling back over his shoulder, "Put lunch on my tab."
"Right," said Yahweh to himself. "And who pays your tab?" he thought. "Who pays everyone's tab? Who's the one they all come running to in need and desperation? Moi. That's who. And who do I run to? Aye, there's the rub."
"Son to Daddy!" squawked the loudspeaker system again.
"All right. I'm coming," he shouted petulantly. Then, again to himself, "I'm coming." He vanished, knowing what to expect but not how it would end.
Satan stood in the doorway of the stable, looking out across the barnyard to the road and fields beyond.
"Father!" he screamed again.
"You don't have to shout," said Yahweh from inside the stable. "I'm here."
Satan turned around in fury, not even deterred by noticing his mother, Gaia, had also appeared.
"You love the grand entrance, don't you?"
"This is my world! My garden!" shouted Yahweh. "My rule rules here."
"You pathetic creature," replied Satan. "You rule nothing. Only death rules here." And he pointed to the dead calf. Its mother was standing now, and licking her dead baby's wet hide to clean and dry it. She made her soft mothering sounds that only come after the moment of birth. Her living child was still trying to stand but by now it could get up on its hind legs and was trying to push up its weight with its front legs.
Satan knelt beside the dead calf then picked it up in his arms. Its mother mooed in concern and stayed beside her child. Satan held out the calf to Yahweh.
"This is your child. Your child is dead. Do you know why?"
"You mean physically?" asked Yahweh. "I can explain how the calf died. If you want me to confess to murder, then ask the right question."
"Then confess to murder, damn you!" shouted Satan, still holding the calf out to Yahweh, who took the dead body from Satan's arms and disappeared.
"Where did he go?" asked Satan.
"He needs to be alone," explained Gaia. "You asked The Big Question."
Yahweh appeared on the top of a rocky, treeless ridge overlooking a rocky, treeless plain in Palestine. He laid the calf on a stone altar, then sat on the altar himself, looking far out over his land. And his eyes saw multitudes of armies charging each other with swords held high. He saw swords descend and limbs severed, bodies hacked, blood spilled. He saw vast explosions with plumes of smoke towering miles into the sky, laying waste to whole cities in a moment. He saw famine and starvation that drove parents to eat their children and children to kill each other. He saw sickness and plague destroying family upon family. He saw cats gleefully killing mice. Vultures ripping dead flesh. Animals eating and killing plants. He saw death upon death in endless chains reaching backwards and forwards in time. He saw wasteful death. Useful death. Needful death. Senseless death. He heard the screams of the dying, the screams of the living and the silence that comes to all and is the hardest sound to bear.
He knew he'd condemned the world to pain, suffering and death. It's the way the world is. He could explain it. Describe it. Define it. But never, ever, justify it. Every death was part of him dying, just as he was born in every birth. And all of that death and all of that birth came together here, in this one dead calf with the white stripe down its back.
He put his hands on the calf. It was wet and cold. It would never run or suckle. Its potential would never be fulfilled. That was the hardest to bear.
He looked around him. By definition, he knew where he was. He saw old Abraham bring his trusting, beautiful Isaac to the altar. He saw Abraham lay trusting Isaac on the altar. He saw Abraham lift the sharp knife high in the air then wait, suspended. He saw Isaac's look of surprise, then fear, then forgiveness, all in a moment. That was why he stopped Abraham's hand. For father and son, each in his own way, had proved themselves superior to Yahweh: one in his duty, one in his love, and both in their devotion. At that moment, Yahweh knew he had failed both as creator and as father. Or, rather, he'd succeeded in ways he'd never imagined. For the son, and the son of the son, both surpassed him in that one critical area in which he was so lacking: humanity.
Which is why he became flesh and lived among his people. It was why he was born in pain and why he died in pain. It was why he redeemed the redeemer. And it was why he could not forgive himself for eyes that saw everything yet understood nothing. He was his own hardest judge. And now came the hardest task of all.
"Gaia," Yahweh said softly. "I need you."
"I'm here," she said as she appeared beside him.
"What am I going to do?"
"What you must," she said. "As you always have."
"But he'll hate me."
"He already does."
"He'll never forgive me."
He looked at her with concern, then smiled wanly.
"I've never stopped loving him."
"I know that," she said, "But he doesn't."
"It's just been so hard," he said. "With the two of them." He paused. She said nothing.
He looked far out across his land.
"I've never seen twins so different," he said. "Like night and day. One does everything I ask. The perfect, obedient son. The other says ‘No’ to everything I ask. 'It's a nice day,' I say. 'Not at all,' he replies. 'Don't go there,' I say. So he does. 'You won't,' I say. 'I will,' he says. Always a fight. Always a battle. And now this," he said with a sigh. "'Why is there death? Why do you permit pain and suffering? Why do you permit your creatures to kill and rip each other apart? Why create life in order to destroy it?'
"On my word, Gaia," said Yahweh plaintively. "He judges me. More than Job, he . . . judges . . . me."
Gaia remained silent.
"The one accepts all this as the way things are, yet seeks redemption beyond it. The other refuses to accept. He says the very world is flawed And what's more, Gaia, he says I'm flawed. That I've failed."
He looked at her hesitantly. "And it's true, isn't it? I have failed. I've failed miserably."
Gaia smiled and took his hand in hers. Yahweh looked at her gratefully.
"When they were young," he said. "They thought I could do anything, everything. And so I believed as well. I was young, too," he said with a smile. "And the fullness of youth is deceptive," he added ruefully. "I was full of myself. One son never stopped believing in me. He knew I was right. He knew I was just. I always remained the perfect father as he was the perfect son, even unto death and beyond. That's why I couldn't let him die. Or, rather, why I had to redeem his death. For he truly believed in me and I didn't want him to stop believing. I didn't want to fail him.
"But the other, the prodigal. The man who broke his father's heart and earned my unremitting wrath. The one I could never forgive. The one I've tried to destroy. Now he returns and asks me the question that never even occurred to the other: 'Why? My father,' he asks, 'Why?'
"He doesn't ask for himself. He doesn't ask about the fall from heaven into the fiery lake. He doesn't ask about his own pain. He asks about the death of a calf that never really experienced life. He asks me about this death I cannot redeem. And in so doing, he condemns me into my own lake of fire from which I can never be freed."
He looked at her with pain she'd never seen.
"I've failed him, Gaia," he said. "I've failed them all."
She reached out and pulled his head to her shoulder, holding him tightly and stroking his hair.
"Don't you think he knows all this?" she asked. "He's our son. He's not stupid. He hurts. He questions. He pleads. He curses. But he's not stupid."
She continued stroking Yahweh's hair for the longest time.