Tip of the Quill: A Journal

This was a short story written back in 1999, about what happens when the ghost of Albert Einstein meets the thunder god Thor on a park bench in London. It is, of course, a story about ego.


Thor whistled softly to himself as he fed the pigeons.
He did it softly, of course, so as not to disturb the passing tourists. He hated the tourists, but it wouldn’t do for one of them to call attention to a thunder god feeding the birds in Leceister Square. It was best to keep a low profile in such situations.
He pulled his fisherman’s cap down lower over his eyes, then tore off another hunk of the stale loaf of bread in his lap. The crumbs were scattered all over the front of his tattered raincoat, but that leant credibility to the costume. He thought about this for a second, then reached up and took a bite out of the loaf himself, making sure to get plenty of crumbs stuck in his matted beard. He grinned to himself as he did so. He should have been the god of theatre, or of covert operations. He’d have been pretty damned good at it, and at least then he’d still be in vogue.
“Ach. Hello, Thor.”
The thunder god cursed under his breath as he looked up to see who was so nonchalantly blowing his cover. There, in a raincoat and fisherman’s hat that looked suspiciously familiar, stood the one fellow he really didn’t want to see on a lazy Sunday afternoon, smiling sleepily at him from behind the famous bushy gray mustache.
“Bugger off, Albert,” Thor growled.
Einstein chuckled softly and sat down on the bench beside him. “What, there’s only enough room on the bench for one ghost at a time?”
“You’re so smart, you do the math,” Thor muttered. “Go on, scram. You’ll blow my cover.”
Einstein reached into the pocket of his raincoat and produced a worn walnut pipe. He rapped it on the side of the bench, then reached into another pocket and produced a small leather pouch of tobacco. “There are plenty of bums in London,” he said. “No one will notice two feeding the pigeons.”
The thunder god snorted. “In matching outfits?”
Einstein shrugged. “What, like bums have a choice between Gucci and Versace?”
Thor growled again under his breath, then sighed and leaned back on the bench. Einstein calmly packed his pipe, replaced the tobacco pouch into its pocket, and then began to fish about in his pockets. “Ach, nein,” he groaned.
“You wouldn’t happen to have a lighter, would you?”
“Sure. I keep one in the handle of my all-purpose Swiss army hammer,” he said. “No, I don’t carry a lighter.”
The physicist sighed. “Well, then, I don’t suppose you could…?”
“Do I look like Prometheus to you?”
Einstein looked at him. “You really hate me, don’t you?”
Thor tore off another piece of bread and tossed it to the pigeons.
Einstein sighed again. “Well, I suppose I could ask one of the tourists…”
Thor scowled. “Hold it out.”
Einstein held the pipe out to him. Thor set the loaf back in his lap, then cupped the bowl of the pipe in one of his massive hands. He took a quick glance around to make sure that no one was looking, and then a tiny bolt of lightning leapt up from between his fingers, crackled across his knuckles and leapt into the bowl. There was a soft pop as the tobacco ignited, and then a puff of smoke wafted upward as Thor pulled his hands away.
“Danke,” Einstein smiled, putting the pipe in his mouth.
“Bitter,” Thor growled, and went back to feeding the pigeons.
A minute passed in silence, then two. Einstein puffed contentedly on his pipe, and Thor tossed bits of bread to the nearby pigeons. Overhead the sun was setting over the city skyline, and the lights of the theaters and restaurants on all sides of the square were beginning to flicker to life. Thor scowled as the marquee of the Odeon lit up in a flash of white light, advertising the latest Tom Hanks movie in eight-foot-tall letters.
“It’s disgraceful,” he spat, breaking the silence.
Einstein looked at him calmly. “What is?”
“This whole place,” Thor said. “Look at this. Neon lights and Hollywood shows everywhere you look. There’s even a fucking Ben and Jerry’s over there in the corner.”
“So, this is London. And it looks like New York.”
Einstein puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “You say this like it is a bad thing.”
“It is a bad thing!” Thor thundered, then instantly dipped his chin to his chest as a nearby tourist in a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt glanced over at the outburst. A moment later, he glanced up to see the tourist wandering off towards the movie theater. Thor glared at his retreating back. “The whole city, this whole island, hell, even the whole world is being Americanized! It’s all the same! McDonald’s, the Gap…”
“It’s the way of things,” the scientist said. “Capitalistic Darwinism. It’s progress.”
“Progress, Odin’s ass,” Thor scowled. “It’s disgusting.”
Einstein paused thoughtfully for a moment. “I wonder, Thor,” he began carefully. “I wonder why it is that you hate the Americans so much.”
Thor glowered at him. “What are you getting at?”
Einstein shrugged broadly. “I cannot claim to be Herr Freud,” he smiled, “but you seem to have a great animosity for both me and the Americans.”
Thor tore off a piece of bread, slightly larger than usual, and tossed it a little harder than usual at the pigeons. There was a slight ruffling of feathers as the birds retreated from the bouncing crust, then they moved in on it in their regular routine.
“And I find myself wondering,” Einstein continued, “why exactly this is. What is it that feeds such contempt?”
Thor tore off another piece, even larger than the last, and lobbed it towards the birds. There was another fluttering of pigeon wings, and Thor’s scowl cut deeper into the dead god’s cheeks.
“And the only thing that occurs to me, my friend,” Einstein said, even more carefully, but with the slightest catch of laughter tingeing his words, “is that it might be… Jealousy?”
Thor snatched up what was left of the stale loaf and hurled it into the midst of the flock. There was an explosion of feathers as the panicking birds launched themselves into the sky.
“What would I, the god of thunder, have to be jealous of… Of… Of a dead Jewish patent clerk and a country full of simpering, money-grubbing assholes?” Thor glared furiously at Einstein. He clutched the back of the bench with one hand and his knee with the other, his face flushing red as a vein throbbed in his neck beneath the beard.
Einstein calmly took the pipe from his mouth and put up a hand. “I said that I was not Herr Feud,” he smiled apologetically. “I may be wrong. But it seems like the most logical choice.”
Thor’s eye twitched as he stared at the scientist. His voice was suddenly very quiet and very cold. “How so?”
Einstein tapped the pipe on the bench, then replaced it in his mouth. He puffed on it for a second, then looked at Thor. “The bomb, perhaps?”
The wood of the bench groaned in protest as Thor’s grip tightened.
“It was, after all, bigger than thunder,” Einstein continued. “Perhaps you feel… Upstaged, somehow? That perhaps I have taken your place in the pantheon?” Einstein chuckled. “Thor, I assure you, I do not want…”
“Be silent, clerk,” Thor said quietly. His voice was cold, controlled, even as his face was as red as the fire of a bier. “Do not tell me that you did not want. Don’t even consider that such a thing was unintentional. Because you’re wrong.”
Einstein cocked an eyebrow at him. “Am I?”
“I am a god,” Thor growled. “A god. Do you understand me? I have temples. I have sacrifices. I have followers, trembling at my wrath…”
“Had,” Einstein replied, cutting him off.
“Have,” Thor snarled.
“Had,” Einstein said again. “Had temples, had sacrifices, had followers. Had. A long time ago.” He took another puff on his pipe and shrugged. “It’s okay. Your jealousy is understandable.”
The wood groaned again. “I am still a god.”
“Perhaps,” Einstein nodded. “And I never was, nor ever will be, more than a Jewish scientist. But you are probably still jealous, because I’m remembered more than you.”
Thor sneered at him. “No one ever made sacrifices to you.”
“No? I have posters, T-shirts, postcards…” Einstein smiled. “You have a comic book and a couple of cheap action figures. The damage to your ego is understandable.”
“Damage to my ego?” Thor roared with laughter. “Why would I have to worry about a damaged ago?” He looked up to see a young Japanese woman looking keenly at him. “Hey!” Thor cried. “Hey, you! Tell me — who would you rather have in bed? A dead patent clerk or a god with the biggest hammer you’ve ever seen?”
“Oh, ja, that’s keeping a low profile,” Einstein huffed as the Japanese woman scurried away.
Thor turned on him. His scowl was so deep by now that it almost sliced into his teeth, teeth which were now clenched so hard that the sound of them grinding together put teutonic plates to shame. Thor stared at the little ghost seated beside him in his raincoat, his fisherman’s cap, smoking a pipe lit with his lightning. The little scientist was sitting there, gloating. And the worst part of it? The absolute worst part of it…?
Thor felt something inside him give, and he smiled at the feeling, a muscle relaxing after having been knotted for so long that the pain was normal. His grip on the bench relaxed, he felt the flush leave his face, and he actually smiled at Einstein. Einstein, for his part, suddenly began to look nervous.
“You are…” Thor breathed, “You are right.”
“Ah,” Einstein said.
“You are,” Thor nodded. “I have been… Jealous. I, the thunder god, jealous of the god of the atom bomb.”
Einstein took the pipe from his mouth and pointed to the god with it. “But that’s the point,” the scientist said. “I’m not a god.”
“You are a god,” Thor replied, “or you would not be here.”
Now it was Einstein’s turn to look dumbly at his companion. “Explain,” he said at last.
“You are a modern god,” Thor replied, feeling a small twinge of pleasure in his stomach at the confusion growing on the scientist’s face. “More people now fear your work than any god in history. You and those godforsaken Americans.” He pointed at the letters written out in light on the face of the movie theater. “Look at these modern temples, these glorious monuments built to these Hollywood men. Men above gods, and above men, science.”
Einstein was scowling. “But I never wanted to be feared. I wanted to give free energy to the world.”
“But you and the Americans did not solve the energy problem,” Thor said, almost gleefully. “You instead solved the problem of, ‘How would one man wield the hammer of the gods?'” He leaned forward in his seat. “‘With the push of a button,’ you answered. You and the Americans.” Thor reached under the bench, and when he straightened again he was holding his hammer in his hands. He caressed the simple wooden handle, the smooth, polished walnut that shone almost as brightly as the even more polished steel of the head. A leather strap wove its way up the handle like a snake around a tree, and Thor twirled the strap between his fingers thoughtfully. “But you couldn’t be satisfied with a hammer, the lightning, a single thing so simple as a god’s tool,” he said. “You had to go straight for a fucking nuclear jackhammer, and pound an entire city into extinction with it.” Thor laughed. “And you accuse me of being a slave to pride?”
Einstein was now puffing furiously on his pipe. “That was never my intention.”
“Nonsense,” Thor countered levelly. “You’re the one who wrote the letter to the President of the United States. You’re the one who left Germany and traveled across the ocean to play with Oppenheimer and his little friends in order to kill off your old countrymen.”
“Because they were trying to be gods!” Einstein snapped. He snatched the pipe from his mouth and turned on Thor. “They were killing anyone who wasn’t like them. They were the ones with all the pride! They were trying to be gods on earth!”
“And so you decided to blow it up,” Thor said quietly. “Blow it all sky-high, because your old countrymen were killing off your people.” He tapped the head of his hammer on the bench. “Have you ever wondered, Albert, what you would have done if you hadn’t been Jewish?”
Einstein stared at Thor, speechless.
“We fought between ourselves, we gods,” Thor said. “We fooled each other, killed each other, fucked each other, devoured each other and each other’s children. We did all these things. But none of us, none of us, ever tried to blow up Valhalla.”
Einstein opened his mouth to say something, then stopped. He licked his lips, gritted his teeth, then closed his mouth and sat back on the bench with his arms crossed.
Thor smiled and reached in his pocket. He produced a second loaf of bread, tore it in half, and offered half to Einstein. Silently the ghost of the scientist took it and held it absently in his hands. Thor grinned to himself, then took a big bite out of his own loaf, making sure to get plenty of crumbs everywhere. He chewed it up, swallowed, and then grinned as he pointed at the returning pigeons.
“Look at them,” he said. “They’re doves. Not just pigeons, they’re doves. And think how many of them will get barbecued if your disciples ever press that button.”
Einstein scowled as he tore off a piece of bread and flung it at the nearest pigeon. “Well, then,” he muttered. “Let’s hope they stay humble.”
“Let’s hope,” Thor grinned, and went back to feeding the pigeons.