The God of the Cup
It was bledding out, and all the leeches thronged the sidewalks and spilled out into the streets, cold corpses trying to catch rusty flakes of sky-blood on their tongues. My breath steamed in front of me as I muscled through the crowd, and down, down steps sticky with melting puddles of crimson, eyes level with the street outside for just a moment, and then I went into the bar.
There were warm lights shining off of old glass and wood blackened with age, and the floor covered with fresh sawdust and shavings of white oak. Copper and iron pipes ran the length of the ceiling, little twists of string dangling bundles of moly and last year’s turnips. There was a fire of pine branches in one corner with two crowded benches, each pair of hands clasping a mug; and a bar that ran the length of the room and through a slight archway into the chamber beyond. On the end of the bar, facing me as I stood in and surveyed the tavern, was the god of the cup.
Pedestal, god, and the great cup he carried were all carved of a piece, or so it seemed, of some whitish stone like pale, filmy marble streaked with dark slivers of old fossils. The god’s feet were level with the bar, and at them were sprawled a handful of coins and even a few bills. The cup itself was nearly as big as the god—like a man or woman might hold a barrel in his lap, lipping the lid to sip at the offering. I wandered over to the cup itself and saw it was almost empty, but the inside was a darker material than the rest of the idol—black and porous like volcanic stone. As I watched, a barmister came along with his tray of almost empty glasses and filled the cup to the brim, sweeping up a few coins from the god’s feet to pay the tab, and wandered back away.
Feeling the thirst upon me and tired of gawking, I bellied up to the rail and the tender came to see my needs. I asked if there was gorgondy, and he smiled at the name of that liquid sin, and smiled wider as I told him to bring the bottle. The tender descended into the seller behind the bar, his head bobbing down out of my view, and I sat and nursed the thirst, and often my eye came to rest on the god and the cup at the end of the bar. It seemed the tender was gone a long while, and the crowd moved around me in a time measured by cackles of the fire, the blast of chill air as the door was slammed open and shut from within and without, and the slow drift of the crowd. Some as finished laid change at the god’s feet, and some poured the first or last sip of their libation into the cup, and mouthed a name or a prayer. I watched this for a long time, and then the tender came back with the iron bottle and a single glass of brilliant old crystal, low and wide and balanced to be held in the hand and savour, and a second glass full of frosted balls of ice.
The gorgondy flowed, and the tender watched me as I sucked on the ice before, and relished the fire of the world as it went down. For there is all that is great and damnable about gorgondy, and at first you taste the aroma of black earth and dead things before ever it hits your lips, and then your mouth floods with the sharp tang of iron being forged and the dregs of wine that are purple and sooty at the bottom of the glass, and the fresh hops still bitter from the fields, and over this all the burning bite of a liquid not meant for human lips, that excites and numbs the tongue and throat, to sit in the stomach and simmer in a little pool and eat at the soft pink insides. I sucked at the ice as the gorgondy worked in me and sighed. The tender watched this and cleaned a glass, and I poured myself another and asked about the god at the end of the bar. This is the story he told me.
There was an old king, before there was a word for kings as we know them today, and he ruled a land of mud-bricks and green growing things and flashing bronze knives that gleamed red in tall temples, and he went down to the hell of his people on a journey. There were many obstacles and adventures before the king set out for hell, but they are not important for this story: all you need know is the king went down to hell, and following him was a barmaid.
For in those times the drink was beer of a sort, and the recipes were old and sacred things governed by the tides of women and the harvest time, and as women’s blood came with the moon and the women went forth to harvest the grain, it was the women that made the beer, and when it was ready they served it to the people in low taverns of mud brick, between the surface world and the darkness beneath the world, and the women went bare-chested and brought forth the beer when called for. I never knew why the barmaid followed the king to hell, but there are always good reasons for these things: perhaps he had saved her from a monster, or destroyed her bar and promised repayment, or she carried some magical brew to give him strength against the shades. I did not ask, and still do not know.
The king was beset by the devils of hell—messengers of his people’s death-gods, strange things compared to the demons I knew and were familiar with, called by strange names, but devils none the less—and he fought and tricked his way past them to the gods of that place, and the barmaid followed him. Whatever he sought—here the tender wavered, and said the shade of a friend, or the lost years of youth, or even a certain herb—the king failed, and unmolested was granted leave of hell, alone. For the barmaid stayed behind and married a demon.
Now I might wonder at the type of woman of that era, where magic was the stuff of everyday life and a pox solved by an amulet and a prayer as much as chewing the right river-grass and refraining from screwing the sicklier goats for a moon or two, where the beer was brewed by timing the moon in its quarters and the tender of the bar was already half-priestess to the clay brick-tribe. To wander from a city where most women of her time would never travel a mile beyond the room where they were born, to see the darker mysteries than the inundation of the fields and the quickening of the womb, and to meet the demons of the final darkness…and find them not unattractive compared to the bronze and lanky, lice-ridden men at home.
So the barmaid and her husband set up their house on the outskirts of hell, and she made a tavern because it is what she knew, and roused custom from the demons and the dead. I know not what wine and spirits they must serve in hell, or how she might have served them or what currency she might get in return, but the tender hinted at strange vintages fetched by the demon her husband on airy wings, and strange and terrible contracts that had to be forged—though the latter, he averred, was true enough of the liquor trade in any age. Even the gods of death came at times to sate their thirst, veiled in shrouds to blend in with the common shades and not reveal their presence taking pleasure with their servants.
The tender seemed to stop then, and answered customers calls as I sipped my second glass of gorgondy, and he did not seem willing to continue, so at last I begged him to finish the story of the god of the cup.
“A cupbearer of the gods,” said the tender, mixing a fizz with the eye of an alchemist. “Whose purpose is to bring libations to the shades in hell, bound to carry the due for the dead from the world of the living. In time his pantheon fell, and he wandered aimless until the barmaid gave him a job.”
“But how came he here?” I asked, incredulous.
“That is another story.” The tender said, as I drained my second gorgondy and reached with shaking hand for the iron bottle. “But first, we should discuss your tab…”