In the fourth part of Small Gods, Brutha meets Vorbis. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For talk of abuse, homophobia and bullying, racism, suicide. Many are brief mentions, but I’m still including the warning just in case.
One of the things I most had difficulty with when I tried to be a believer was prayer. Prayer was a constant in my household, but not in a manner that I’ve seen often since. My mother uttered prayers after practically everything: bad meals. An act of disobedience. A desire for a good parking spot. She spoke to God, and she believed that life showed her that God was listening. Everything was rationalized through this system. If something worked in her favor, then God was pleased with her. If not? Then God was cursing us, punishing us for minutia with minutia. Because I had not gotten a perfect score on a spelling test, God was punishing me by taking away my reading privileges. If parents couldn’t afford to pay a bill, it was because God was getting his vengeance for our unholiness as a family.
So I was told to pray. Pray before meals, pray before tests, pray before bed, and pray while my mother beat me. I did most of these silently unless I was desperate or depressed. Then I somehow reasoned that if I spoke my prayer aloud, then it was more likely to reach up to Heaven and God would hear me and finally answer me. I prayed a lot as a kid and a teenager, often upwards of thirty to forty times a day. I prayed that someone would be friends with me. I prayed to make it through a single day without being called a slur. I prayed to have a girlfriend because that would also answer my other prayer: to be straight.
I began to suspect that God was not listening sometime after I turned thirteen, when I prayed for God to help me get through the school day without wanting to die. That prayer was not answered, but none of the other ones were. I wrote it off for years as arrogance. How arrogant was it to want God to listen to me? My mother insisted that there were always people worse off than me who needed God’s help. The homosexuals, the Mexicans and the blacks, the immigrants, the Democrats, the little boys who didn’t obey their mother’s every word. It never seemed to occur to her that I was many of those things all at once, so I simply believed her. I wasn’t worthy of God’s attention because I was not a good Christian.
That’s an absurd look at how prayer should work, and yet, even years later, when I was taught just how wrong my mother was by the sisters at church, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that prayer was never going to work. How did God prioritize prayer? I asked once. Does He exist out of our concept of time? Can he answer thousands of prayers at once? Does He keep track of how many times we pray and how many prayers he grants? I was pushed away from thinking of it all as some sort of quota system or detailed log, but I was disturbed by the whole concept anyway. Why hadn’t God answered my prayers when I was a kid? I was told repeatedly that children are often the most pure expression of God and his love. Why did God seemingly abandon me as a child when I most needed someone to save me?
I kept praying. I got older, and my prayers felt even more distinctly false. I heard my voice in my head repeating the benedictions and the Hail Marys and it sounded fake and insincere. The silence, however, did not. My head rang hollow whenever I prayed, so much so that I started imagining what God would say if he ever responded. I would act out these elaborate conversations that provided me with justice and compassion and love, and I’d spend hours talking to God by talking to myself.
That absence never went away, and by the time I turned nineteen, the prayers stopped. I haven’t relied on them since, even during moments of duress. It doesn’t happen because I know not to expect anything anymore. I’m telling y’all this because while I was reading the (admittedly) entertaining sequence where Om hears all the prayers sent his way, I had a quiet moment where I realized how much it represented my own experience with prayer. What little we hear from the poorest in the Citadel is heartbreaking. The snippets of prayer are all moments of utter desperation, and Om cannot answer a single one of them. How could he? Even when he hears them, he doesn’t possess the power to do anything about them. And from what I can tell, belief in the Discworld doesn’t necessitate prayer. These people can believe in Om, but the power transferred to him through this doesn’t come with a neatly-typed letter.
Om doesn’t answer prayers because on a functional level, prayer is a waste for him. Is it an emotional waste, though? Not in the slightest, and we can see just how meaningful it is for someone to feel as if there’s something or someone out there listening to them. Pratchett makes that literal in Om’s case, since his prayer actually reaches Brutha, who saves him from death by eagle. But I don’t think that this section discounts prayer at all, even if Pratchett skewers it in some sense. Prayer can be a powerful thing for those who believe. It just means nothing to me because I lack that belief.
The entire exquisition sequence was unnerving not because I believed Brutha to be in any danger; on the contrary, it was obvious he was safe. Well, at least in one sense. The dread came from the unknown: what the hell did Vorbis have planned for Brutha? Why was his loyalty and memory so important to Vorbis? What possible advantage would this give Vorbis in Ephebe?
I was also concerned for Brutha throughout all of this. Obviously, the scene upsets him because the idea of being forced to forget an experience is so absurd to him. It’s scary, too, because he’s suddenly asked to be a part of something so much larger than him, and he’s never been given attention like this before. I’m also referring to the fact that he’s got a god praying to him in this section. It’s overwhelming! From retrieving Om, to the close calls with the Iams, to the conversation with Dhblah, Brutha does more in this part of the book than he’s probably done in his entire life, you know? So there’s my worry: I don’t want Brutha to be exploited, and it seems like that is what is being set up here. Vorbis orders Brutha to be silent about what he heard and about what he’s going to do, and I don’t like that. That’s a bad sign.
I’M NERVOUS, Y’ALL.
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