The Book of Martha
by Octavia E. Butler
"It's difficult, isn't it?" God said with a weary smile. "You're truly free for the first time. What could
be more difficult than that?"
Martha Bes looked around at the endless grayness that was, along with God, all that she could
see. In fear and confusion, she covered her broad black face with her hands. "If only I could
wake up," she whispered.
God kept silent but was so palpably, disturbingly present that even in the silence Martha felt
rebuked. "Where is this?" she asked, not really wanting to know, not wanting to be dead when
she was only forty-three. "Where am I?"
"Here with me," God said.
"Really here?" she asked. "Not at home in bed dreaming? Not locked up in a mental institution?
Not … not lying dead in a morgue?"
"Here," God said softly. "With me."
After a moment, Martha was able to take her hands from her face and look again at the
grayness around her and at God. "This can't be heaven," she said. "There's nothing here, no
one here but you."
"Is that all you see?" God asked.
This confused her even more. "Don't you know what I see?" she demanded and then quickly
softened her voice. "Don't you know everything?"
God smiled. "No, I outgrew that trick long ago. You can't imagine how boring it was."
This struck Martha as such a human thing to say that her fear diminished a little—although she
was still impossibly confused. She had, she remembered, been sitting at her computer,
wrapping up one more day's work on her fifth novel. The writing had been going well for a
change, and she'd been enjoying it. For hours, she'd been spilling her new story onto paper in
that sweet frenzy of creation that she lived for. Finally, she had stopped, turned the computer
off, and realized that she felt stiff. Her back hurt. She was hungry and thirsty, and it was almost
five A.M. She had worked through the night. Amused in spite of her various aches and pains,
she got up and went to the kitchen to find something to eat.
And then she was here, confused and scared. The comfort of her small, disorderly house was
gone, and she was standing before this amazing figure who had convinced her at once that he
was God—or someone so powerful that he might as well be God. He had work for her to do, he
said—work that would mean a great deal to her and to the rest of humankind.
If she had been a little less frightened, she might have laughed. Beyond comic books and bad
movies, who said things like that?
"Why," she dared to ask, "do you look like a twice-live-sized, bearded white man?" In fact,
seated as he was on his huge thronelike chair, he looked, she thought, like a living version of
Michelangelo's Moses, a sculpture that she remembered seeing pictured in her college arthistory textbook about twenty years before. Except that God was more fully dressed than
Michelangelo's Moses, wearing, from neck to ankles, the kind of long, white robe that she had
so often seen in paintings of Christ.
"You see what your life has prepared you to see," God said.
"I want to see what's really here!"
"Do you? What you see is up to you, Martha. Everything is up to you."
She sighed. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
And she was sitting. She did not sit down, but simply found herself sitting in a comfortable
armchair that had surely not been there a moment before. Another trick, she thought
resentfully—like the grayness, like the giant on his throne, like her own sudden appearance
here. Everything was just one more effort to amaze and frighten her. And, of course, it was
working. She was amazed and badly frightened. Worse, she disliked the giant for manipulating
her, and this frightened her even more. Surely he could read her mind. Surely he would punish
She made herself speak through her fear. "You said you had work for me." She paused, licked
her lips, tried to steady her voice. "What do you want me to do?"
He didn't answer at once. He looked at her with what she read as amusement—looked at her
long enough to make her even more uncomfortable.
"What do you want me to do?" she repeated, her voice stronger this time.
"I have a great deal of work for you," he said at last. "As I tell you about it, I want you to keep
three people in mind: Jonah, Job, and Noah. Remember them. Be guided by their stories."
"All right," she said because he had stopped speaking, and it seemed that she should say
something. "All right."
When she was a girl, she had gone to church and to Sunday School, to Bible class and to
vacation Bible school. Her mother, only a girl herself, hadn't known much about being a mother,
but she had wanted her child to be "good," and to her, "good" meant "religious." As a result,
Martha knew very well what the Bible said about Jonah, Job, and Noah. She had come to
regard their stories as parables rather than literal truths, but she remembered them. God had
ordered Jonah to go to the city of Nineveh and to tell the people there to mend their ways.
Frightened, Jonah had tried to run away from the work and from God, but God had caused him
to be shipwrecked, swallowed by a great fish, and given to know that he could not escape.
Job had been the tormented pawn who lost his property, his children, and his health, in a bet
between God and Satan. And when Job proved faithful in spite of all that God had permitted
Satan to do to him, God rewarded Job with even greater wealth, new children, and restored
As for Noah, of course, God ordered him to build an ark and save his family and a lot of animals
because God had decided to flood the world and kill everyone and everything else.
Why was she to remember these three Biblical figures in particular? What had they do with
her—especially Job and all his agony?
"This is what you're to do," God said. "You will help humankind to survive its greedy, murderous,
wasteful adolescence. Help it to find less destructive, more peaceful, sustainable ways to live."
Martha stared at him. After a while, she said feebly, "… what?"
"If you don't help them, they will be destroyed."
"You're going to destroy them … again?" she whispered.
"Of course not," God said, sounding annoyed. "They're well on the way to destroying billions of
themselves by greatly changing the ability of the earth to sustain them. That's why they need
help. That's why you will help them."
"How?" she asked. She shook her head. "What can I do?"
"Don't worry," God said. "I won't be sending you back home with another message that people
can ignore or twist to suit themselves. It's too late for that kind of thing anyway." God shifted on
his throne and looked at her with his head cocked to one side. "You'll borrow some of my
power," he said. "You'll arrange it so that people treat one another better and treat their
environment more sensibly. You'll give them a better chance to survive than they've given
themselves. I'll lend you the power, and you'll do this." He paused, but this time she could think
of nothing to say. After a while, he went on.
"When you've finished your work, you'll go back and live among them again as one of their
lowliest. You're the one who will decide what that will mean, but whatever you decide is to be
the bottom level of society, the lowest class or caste or race, that's what you'll be."
This time when he stopped talking, Martha laughed. She felt overwhelmed with questions, fears,
and bitter laughter, but it was the laughter that broke free. She needed to laugh. It gave her
"I was born on the bottom level of society," she said. "You must have known that."
God did not answer.
"Sure you did." Martha stopped laughing and managed, somehow, not to cry. She stood up,
stepped toward God. "How could you not know? I was born poor, black, and female to a
fourteen-year-old mother who could barely read. We were homeless half the time while I was
growing up. Is that bottom-level enough for you? I was born on the bottom, but I didn't stay
there. I didn't leave my mother there, either. And I'm not going back there!"
Still God said nothing. He smiled.
Martha sat down again, frightened by the smile, aware that she had been shouting—shouting at
God! After a while, she whispered, "Is that why you chose me to do this … this work? Because
of where I came from?"
"I chose you for all that you are and all that you are not," God said. "I could have chosen
someone much poorer and more downtrodden. I chose you because you were the one I wanted
Martha couldn't decide whether he sounded annoyed. She couldn't decide whether it was an
honor to be chosen to do a job so huge, so poorly defined, so impossible.
"Please let me go home," she whispered. She was instantly ashamed of herself. She was
begging, sounding pitiful, humiliating herself. Yet these were the most honest words she'd
spoken so far.
"You're free to ask me questions," God said as though he hadn't heard her plea at all. "You're
free to argue and think and investigate all of human history for ideas and warnings. You're free
to take all the time you need to do these things. As I said earlier, you're truly free. You're even
free to be terrified. But I assure you, you will do this work."
Martha thought of Job, Jonah, and Noah. After a while, she nodded.
"Good," God said. He stood up and stepped toward her. He was at least twelve feet high and
inhumanly beautiful. He literally glowed. "Walk with me," he said.
And abruptly, he was not twelve feet high. Martha never saw him change, but now he was her
size—just under six feet—and he no longer glowed. Now when he looked at her, they were eye
to eye. He did look at her. He saw that something was disturbing her, and he asked, "What is it
now? Has your image of me grown feathered wings or a blinding halo?"
"Your halo's gone," she answered. "And you're smaller. More normal."
"Good," he said. "What else do you see?"
"That will change."
It seemed that they walked over a smooth, hard, level surface, although when she looked down,
she couldn't see her feet. It was as though she walked through ankle-high, ground-hugging fog.
"What are we walking on?" she asked.
"What would you like?" God asked. "A sidewalk? Beach sand? A dirt road?"
"A healthy, green lawn," she said, and was somehow not surprised to find herself walking on
short, green grass. "And there should be trees," she said, getting the idea and discovering she
liked it. "There should be sunshine—blue sky with a few clouds. It should be May or early June."
And it was so. It was as though it had always been so. They were walking through what could
have been a vast city park.
Martha looked at God, her eyes wide. "Is that it?" she whispered. "I'm supposed to change
people by deciding what they'll be like, and then just … just saying it?"
"Yes," God said.
And she went from being elated to—once again—being terrified. "What if I say something
wrong, make a mistake?"
"But … people could get hurt. People could die."
God went to a huge deep red Norway Maple tree and sat down beneath it on a long wooden
bench. Martha realized that he had created both the ancient tree and the comfortable-looking
bench only a moment before. She knew this, but again, it had happened so smoothly that she
was not jarred by it.
"It's so easy," she said. "Is it always this easy for you?"
God sighed. "Always," he said.
She thought about that—his sigh, the fact that he looked away into the trees instead of at her.
Was an eternity of absolute ease just another name for hell? Or was that just the most
sacrilegious thought she'd had so far? She said, "I don't want to hurt people. Not even by
God turned away from the trees, looked at her for several seconds, then said, "It would be better
for you if you had raised a child or two."
Then, she thought with irritation, he should have chosen someone who'd raised a child or two.
But she didn't have the courage to say that. Instead, she said, "Won't you fix it so I don't hurt or
kill anyone? I mean, I'm new at this. I could do something stupid and wipe people out and not
even know I'd done it until afterward."
"I won't fix things for you," God said. "You have a free hand."
She sat down next to him because sitting and staring out into the endless park was easier than
standing and facing him and asking him questions that she thought might make him angry. She
said, "Why should it be my work? Why don't you do it? You know how. You could do it without
making mistakes. Why make me do it? I don't know anything."
"Quite right," God said. And he smiled. "That's why."
She thought about this with growing horror. "Is it just a game to you, then?" she asked. "Are you
playing with us because you're bored?"
God seemed to consider the question. "I'm not bored," he said. He seemed pleased somehow.
"You should be thinking about the changes you'll make. We can talk about them. You don't have
to just suddenly proclaim."
She looked at him, then stared down at the grass, trying to get her thoughts in order. "Okay.
How do I start?"
"Think about this: What change would you want to make if you could make only one? Think of
one important change."
She looked at the grass again and thought about the novels she had written. What if she were
going to write a novel in which human beings had to be changed in only one positive way?
"Well," she said after a while, "the growing population is making a lot of the other problems
worse. What if people could only have two children? I mean, what if people who wanted children
could only have two, no matter how many more they wanted or how many medical techniques
they used to try to get more?"
"You believe the population problem is the worst one, then?" God asked.
"I think so," she said. "Too many people. If we solve that one, we'll have more time to solve
other problems. And we can't solve it on our own. We all know about it, but some of us won't
admit it. And nobody wants some big government authority telling them how many kids to have."
She glanced at God and saw that he seemed to be listening politely. She wondered how far he
would let her go. What might offend him. What might he do to her if he were offended? "So
everyone's reproductive system shuts down after two kids," she said. "I mean, they get to live as
long as before, and they aren't sick. They just can't have kids any more."
"They'll try," God said. "The effort they put into building pyramids, cathedrals, and moon rockets
will be as nothing to the effort they'll put into trying to end what will seem to them a plague of
barrenness. What about people whose children die or are seriously disabled? What about a
woman who's first child is a result of rape? What about surrogate motherhood? What about men
who become fathers without realizing it? What about cloning?"
Martha stared at him, chagrined. "That's why you should do this. It's too complicated."
"All right," Martha sighed and gave up. "All right. What if even with accidents and modern
medicine, even something like cloning, the two-kid limit holds. I don't know how that could be
made to work, but you do."
"It could be made to work," God said, "but keep in mind that you won't be coming here again to
repair any changes you make. What you do is what people will live with. Or in this case, die
"Oh," Martha said. She thought for a moment, then said, "Oh, no."
"They would last for a good many generations," God said. "But they would be dwindling all the
time. In the end, they would be extinguished. With the usual diseases, disabilities, disasters,
wars, deliberate childlessness, and murder, they wouldn't be able to replace themselves. Think
of the needs of the future, Martha, as well as the needs of the present."
"I thought I was," she said. "What if I made four kids the maximum number instead of two?"
God shook his head. "Free will coupled with morality has been an interesting experiment. Free
will is, among other things, the freedom to make mistakes. One group of mistakes will
sometimes cancel another. That's saved any number of human groups, although it isn't
dependable. Sometimes mistakes cause people to be wiped out, enslaved, or driven from their
homes because they've so damaged or altered their land or their water or their climate. Free will
isn't a guarantee of anything, but it's a potentially useful tool—too useful to erase casually."
"I thought you wanted me to put a stop to war and slavery and environmental destruction!"
Martha snapped, remembering the history of her own people. How could God be so casual
about such things?
God laughed. It was a startling sound—deep, full, and, Martha thought, inappropriately happy.
Why would this particular subject make him laugh? Was he God? Was he Satan? Martha, in
spite of her mother's efforts, had not been able to believe in the literal existence of either. Now,
she did not know what to think—or what to do.
God recovered himself, shook his head, and looked at Martha. "Well, there's no hurry," he said.
"Do you know what a nova is Martha?"
Martha frowned. "It's … a star that explodes," she said, willing, even eager, to be distracted from
"It's a pair of stars," God said. "A large one—a giant—and a small, very dense dwarf. The dwarf
pulls material from the giant. After a while, the dwarf has taken more material than it can control,
and it explodes. It doesn't necessarily destroy itself, but it does throw off a great deal of excess
material. It makes a very bright, violent display. But once the dwarf has quieted down, it begins
to siphon material from the giant again. It can do this over and over. That's what a nova is. If
you change it—move the two stars farther apart or equalize their density, then it's no longer a
Martha listened, catching his meaning even though she didn't want to. "Are you saying that if …
if humanity is changed, it won't be humanity any more?"
"I'm saying more than that," God told her. "I'm saying that even though this is true, I will permit
you to do it. What you decide should be done with humankind will be done. But whatever you
do, your decisions will have consequences. If you limit their fertility, you will probably destroy
them. If you limit their competitiveness or their inventiveness, you might destroy their ability to
survive the many disasters and challenges that they must face."
Worse and worse, Martha thought, and she actually felt nauseous with fear. She turned away
from God, hugging herself, suddenly crying, tears streaming down her face. After a while, she
sniffed and wiped her face on her hands, since she had nothing else. "What will you do to me if I
refuse?" she asked, thinking of Job and Jonah in particular.
"Nothing." God didn't even sound annoyed. "You won't refuse."
"But what if I do? What if I really can't think of anything worth doing?"
"That won't happen. But if it did somehow, and if you asked, I would send you home. After all,
there are millions of human beings who would give anything to do this work."
And, instantly, she thought of some of these—people who would be happy to wipe out whole
segments of the population whom they hated and feared, or people who would set up vast
tyrannies that forced everyone into a single mold, no matter how much suffering that created.
And what about those who would treat the work as fun—as nothing more than a good-guysversus-bad-guys computer game, and damn the consequences. There were people like that.
Martha knew people like that.
But God wouldn't choose that kind of person. If he was God. Why had he chosen her, after all?
For all of her adult life, she hadn't even believed in God as a literal being. If this terrifyingly
powerful entity, God or not, could choose her, he could make even worse choices.
After a while, she asked, "Was there really a Noah?"
"Not one man dealing with a worldwide flood," God said. "But there have been a number of
people who've had to deal with smaller disasters."
"People you ordered to save a few and let the rest die?"
"Yes," God said.
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